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South African Adventure #11 – (Re)learning how to write, spell, and speak

First of all, there are 11 official languages in South Africa. Yes, 11. I am only going to focus on English in this blog, mainly because it’s the only SA language I speak. I may have picked up some phrases in Zulu, Shangaan, and Afrikaans, but conversant I am not. I am exceptional, however, at getting my point across via charade-type gesturing nowadays.

South Africans follow the same spelling and writing conventions as the Brits, Aussies, and Kiwis. As a writer raised in the US, this is a challenge. But I’ve willingly followed their lead, replacing letters, altering spellings and grammar rules, and changing inflections all over the lexicon. This hasn’t been without mishaps, though. I’ve certainly written text that had half American spellings and half South African ones. If I wasn’t detailed in my copywriting before, I’ve certainly learned to be so living here. Let myself even think about daydreaming and I’ll be confusing spellings and terminology all over the pages and screens I publish on.

South Africans spell things the same way as the Brits (using ‘s’ where Americans use ‘z’, such as in ‘organisation’; using a ‘c’ for an ‘s’, such as in ‘licence’). They use the same grammatical rules as the Brits as well (which was a challenge for me, who’d not only grown up under the American system of writing but was also schooled intensely in AP and Chicago Manual of Style writing and editing…). I still find myself asking South Africans about the proper way to say and write certain words. Though I have to admit that, like many Americans, a lot of South Africans don’t know how to spell/write/speak grammatically correctly, a trend I’ve noticed gaining speed worldwide. I chalk it up to a plethora of exposure to bad writing (thank you, internet), poor blogging, devaluing of the craft of language, and too many people who call themselves writers and editors but have never bothered to learn the actual craft of either. Why do so many people think you don’t have to know how to write to call yourself a writer? Could a doctor could go out and practice without first going through pre-med, medical school, residencies, etc.? Or a lawyer practice law without actually studying law and passing the bar exam? Why any so-called writer believes they should have their own special ‘we don’t need to actually KNOW how to write to be considered writers’ category is nonsensical (and arrogant) to me. Okay, off the soapbox, tangent truncated.

South Africans not only spell differently from Americans, they speak differently too. This might seem like it should’ve been obvious (it is, after all, another country), and I knew they did, but it still hit me hard when I arrived here. I couldn’t always understand what the people around me were saying. And, in fairness, they couldn’t always understand me. South African pronunciation is in many ways similar to British pronunciation, but the accent is different. Some phrasing and pronunciations have a harder, more gutteral feel. It is not an easy accent to replicate. I am a musician. I usually have an ear for the musicality of a language and a dialect, and I pick up accents quickly. Not so here. I am firmly American in my speech. Except when it comes to the slang. And South Africa has some beautiful slang. Imagine all the unique slang that a country of 11 national languages can produce! Lekker. Aweh. Eish. Given the right amount of inflection and gesture, these and so many other words can convey in one or two syllables every emotion and nuance you need to know about a moment in time.

I hadn’t realised how many South Africanisms I’d picked up until I went back to the US a few months ago, nor how many pronunciations I’d adopted. I found myself saying ZEH-brah for zebra and GAH-raj (like the Taj in Taj Mahal) for garage. Garbage was now bin. Yebo replaced yes. A barbecue was a braai (the braai is itself a blog post – braai-ing is a revered activity here, spoken of in ecstatic tones and elevated to a spiritual endeavour, especially if you hold the position of braai master). Sausage is boerwoers (and despite my best eforts, phonetically spelling out boerwoers in a way that does justice to the word is beyond my descriptive abilities). A street light was a robot. And a truck? Nope, a bakkie.

I had even inadvertently fallen into saying toe-MAH-toe, even though that is one situation I find annoyingly inconsistent. Why are tomato and potato, which are spelled exactly the same, pronounced differently in South Africa? No South African could give me an answer on that one. But then again, that seems to be the norm with the English language, no matter what accent is used to speak it. American English has its fair share of stupid inconsistencies as well.  I pity anyone who has to learn English. I was an English major and I still struggle.

Anyhoo, I find myself often having to correct myself no matter where I am these days. Which brings me to my point. Why don’t we just standardise/ize English? I studied Spanish. From what I recall, there is really only one Spanish. There is slang, but the language itself isn’t unique to each country that speaks it. Sure, there are nuances, and trying to understand a Cuban, a Puerto Rican, an Argentine and a Spaniard all in one room takes a level of multi-tasking I cannot produce, but they spell things the same way, and the grammar is the same. WTF happened with English?

And the accent? I’m all for regionalisms and each part of the world having their own culture, but really, why the need to make it a POINT to change up the manner of speech? And yes, it was intentionally changed way back when. Apparently, the bluebloods amongst the Brits felt a need to differentiate themselves from those damn Yanks and Brits of the ‘lesser’ classes, and they poshed it up. Read more about it here. I swear it must be a human nature thing to feel this irrepressible need to be superior to something or someone. It’s like we have a collective culture of bullies with low self-esteem. Have so few of us matured beyond third grade?

Don’t get me wrong. I do love the accent, and I admit it – I feel a special sense of pride that I can now pull out 42 ways to rewrite a sentence, depending on which style guide you’re adhering to. But I do get tired of constantly having to rewrite and readjust according to which English country I happen to be in at the moment. It’s the 21st century. There are apparently two billion (yes, billion) native English speakers in the world. Can’t we all just get on the same page and read from the same book without having to convert it to placate cultural egos?

But what does this have to do with living in the bush? Well, not much, really. This is more about life in South Africa (and random general challenges you face while living abroad). It’s easy to understand how you can feel alone and out of sorts in a place where you don’t speak the language. It’s harder to imagine feeling that way in a place where many people actually speak the same language as you. But trust me, you do. You cannot help but feel like an outsider every time you open your mouth. It’s an unfortunate part of being an expat. But it does eventually get better, and it gets better faster the more quickly you learn the local lingo and start using it.

Oh, if you feel like facepalming for an hour, ask a South African about their definition of the multiple variations of now (now now, just now, right now). You’ll end up with a migraine if you try to figure it out. Don’t bother trying. Just resign yourself to the fact that time is a relative term here. And that’s not always a bad thing.

If you want to learn a few other pure South Africanisms, check out 43 Favourite South Africanisms

 

 

Also check out this Guide to South African Slang

If you need help with some pronunciations, let me know and I’ll do my best to spell the words and phrases out phonetically. Except, as I mentioned, for boerwoers. You’ll need to find a true South African to help you with that one.

Categories: Africa, American, Education, Expat, Life Lessons, South Africa, United States, writing | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why there’s no better time than now to care about rhino poaching (or any poaching)

The IUCN – International Union for Conservation of Nature is meeting in Hawaii as I type this. The conference is bursting with people who can and do make the laws about how we treat our brethren species of animals. Poaching and the issues of illegal wildlife trade are at the top of their list of topics to tackle. And I don’t envy a single one of them, as there are no perfect answers, and everything they come up with as solutions will be scrutinised and fought over by some faction who isn’t pleased with their decisions. But there ARE answers to be had. It will be interesting to see what comes out of the convention, as well as what comes out of CITES’ CoP 17, taking place in South Africa in mid-September.

I am sure people are tired of hearing about the poaching problem. And hey, I’m tired of hearing about it too. I’m tired of getting paid peanuts to fight to protect wildlife and wild places for a world that collectively doesn’t seem to care enough to do anything to help the situation. I’m tired of being asked to educate people who seem to not want to listen. I’m tired of seeing butchered rhinos and elephants, selfies taken with abused animals or that put animals at risk (or worse, cause their actual death), and 12-year-olds beaming as they pose next to some big game they’ve ‘bagged’ for sport. I’m tired of it all because, to be honest, it often feels like a losing battle. If I had even a penny for every person I’ve met who says that humans are more important than any of the other animals in the animal kingdom and that the sole purpose of every other species is for human benefit – our consumption and enjoyment – I’d quite possibly oust a billionaire or two from Forbes’ coveted Wealthiest People list.

However, despite the frustration, I continue to not just sit back. I do something. Or at least I am trying to do something. Are you?

Often I’ve found that the same people who complain about poaching and the illegal wildlife trade also haven’t done anything to help solve the problem. I know this isn’t always the case with every person, but more often than not I’ve found it is. Like it or not, that’s been my experience so far. So many people complain about the situation and ask how they, a single person, can possibly make a measurable impact. And each time they ask me, I give them reams of information about how every bit counts, how they CAN help, and enough positive reinforcement to hype up a small army. Sometimes I feel like the Tony Robbins for wildlife protection. Except he gets paid a lot more. And people listen to him. They don’t seem to listen to me.

Most times I get angry, because many of the same people who ask for suggestions and who insist that they are going to get involved, don’t. Or worse, they go ahead and do the things I’ve said CAUSE the problems (such as taking selfies with captive lion or tiger cubs at pretend conservation sanctuaries, riding elephants, or eating shark fin soup). Then they wonder why I stop talking to them.

It’s a shame, not because I stop talking to them (I doubt they really care since they clearly don’t care enough about me to listen to my expertise, advice, and suggestions). It’s a shame because the ill effects of poaching and the illegal wildlife trade aren’t contained in a handful of people in a handful of countries. Nope, they affect EVERY ONE OF US, everywhere.

It has been proven many times over that the funding from poaching is funnelled into any number of criminal organisations and actions, from illegal drug trafficking, human and wildlife trafficking, and terrorism groups (Boko Haram, anyone?). And still, billions of people are sitting back and doing nothing about it.

Here’s what I want to know. People were more than willing to dump a bucket of ice over their head, pledge money to a cause that only affects a very small proportion of the population (and no, I am not diminishing this cause or the disease, but I am playing devil’s advocate for a moment, for perspective and for argument’s sake), and pass it on to a bunch of other people, who happily did the same. And on and on and on. The ice bucket challenge raised millions of dollars to help what is actually a minuscule proportion of the population.

Rhino poaching, on the other hand, affects BILLIONS of people. It affects – whether directly or indirectly – every human on this planet. So why the different response? Why the lack of participation? Is it because the face of it isn’t a human’s? Do we just not care so much when it’s another species in the animal kingdom? Or is it the belief that it’s not in my back yard, so it isn’t my problem? Well, if nothing else, this post should have opened any reader’s eyes to the fact that it IS in your backyard. It’s in everyone’s backyard.

Forget the millions of people in Africa who will suffer because the tourism industry will suffer a massive blow from the extinction of the rhino. Not to mention the imminent demise of other iconic species like and the lion and the elephant – we’re getting awfully close, people – the population of elephants decreased 30% in the last 7 years alone. Then there are the smaller, lesser-known species – pangolins come to mind – that suffer as a result of the inefficiencies, loopholes and lack of sufficient attention directed at this problem. The cracks are wide and deep, and we aren’t doing enough to seal them up and prevent further cracks from appearing.

Who wants to see the Big 4? Or, and what is becoming highly likely, the Big 2? If poaching continues, it won’t just be biodiversity and habit that will be affected adversely. Poaching affects animals AND people, and on a massive scale. Economies will suffer on the African continent, which will obviously not just cause suffering for the people who work in the tourism industry; entire countries overall will bear the brunt. And let’s not forget the fact that people are also dying in myriad ways as a result of this trade, whether directly – as rangers fighting against poachers or as poachers being killed in action – or indirectly – as victims of terrorist attacks, corrupt regimes, and genocide.

It has been well proven that drug trafficking, human and wildlife trafficking, and terrorist groups receive funding by poaching and the illegal wildlife trade syndicates behind it. MILLIONS UPON MILLIONS OF DOLLARS from the death of wildlife go into the hands of violent militant groups and drug cartels around the world!

So are you paying attention now? Are you perhaps now considering that it’s time to do something about this?

I work in conservation in South Africa. I see this stuff first hand. And it has two contradictory effects on me. One effect is to hate the human race, feeling nothing but disgust for anyone who can do what these people do to another living creature.

The other is to treasure that same human race because I see the people on the ground working their tails off to save these and so many other creatures. They aren’t just saving a bunch of big grey tonnes of mammal with a few pointy parts on their face. They are saving economies, people’s livelihoods, biodiversity…the list goes on and on. People are risking their lives EVERY SINGLE DAY, putting themselves in the literal line of fire to not just keep these animals alive, but to combat the trade across the board. And they are doing so with limited support and even more limited resources. And you can help them! Yes, YOU!

Everyone everywhere in the world can help to fight the poaching problem. There are plenty of honest and trustworthy organisations that are channelling the money they receive into rhino (and ultimately wildlife) conservation, community outreach and betterment programmes, as well as for education campaigns for the cultures who are selling and buying the horn. WildAID is a perfect example.

The MyPlanet Rhino Fund is another example. They are affiliated with the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), which is a highly reputable organisation in the conservation industry (and in indeed any industry). You can donate directly or, if you are South African, you can get yourself a MyPlanet card, designate the MyPlanet Rhino Fund as your beneficiary, and voila! It costs nothing to sign up for the card and you pay nothing to have it. But a percentage of every Rand you spend gets put into a fund that is allocated to worthy rhino poaching initiatives. I speak from experience with these guys. I’ve been in meetings with them when they decide where the funding is going. And it DOES go to the causes, not the pockets.

But it isn’t just about donating money. It’s about donating your time and using your actual voice. Volunteer for an organisation like the World Wildlife Fund, or the Nature Conservancy. Hold your own fundraisers at schools, offices, whatever. Walk the walk. Petition your government to get involved. And, for the love of all that is good in this world, don’t buy products made with rhino horn (or from ivory, or pangolin scales, or bear bile, or lion skins, etc.). The more voices putting pressure on the countries where this is happening, the more those countries have no choice but to take this problem seriously and do something (or many things) significant about it.

Here is one such challenge that can be changed, provided there is enough dissent to force that change. In South Africa, anti-poaching units are not allowed to engage the poachers unless fired upon. Which means that even if these units find poachers, they can’t do much. They can try to arrest the poachers, but obviously, a poacher is not going to rock up, put out their hands and let someone put them in cuffs. They are armed, they are dangerous, and they are there for one purpose – to get the horn – and they will (and do) kill anyone or anything that gets in their way. We need to call upon the South African government to change the rules of engagement. There also need to be stronger and more seriously enforced laws surrounding wildlife crime. Right now those laws are a joke and the likelihood of them being upheld even more of a laugh. The government needs to take environmental crime seriously. They need to step up to the plate and take care of their country’s natural resources, its biodiversity, its economy and its people. But this isn’t just happening in South Africa. All governments everywhere should be taking notice and taking action.

Don’t fool yourself into thinking that because you don’t live on the front lines in Africa and Asia that your country isn’t complicit in what’s going on – the US and Europe are among the many places contributing significantly to the decimation of wildlife, through outlets like trophy hunting, illegal trafficking, land clearing, or even traveling to places overseas and visiting petting zoos that cater towards exotics. Petting a lion cub or taking a walk with one is never conservation (check out Blood Lions if you don’t want to believe me). Cuddling a loris on the streets of Southeast Asia does not help wildlife (and certainly not the loris, who’s had his teeth ripped out just for the occasion). These are all examples of scams and greedy practices that bring in money that goes solely into the pockets of the people benefiting from keeping and breeding captive animals, animals that are often stolen from the wild and that will never be released (nor could possibly be safely released, after so much human interaction) into the wild. Ordering shark fin soup is not something you should do, ever. Just don’t.

Know people in Asia? Here’s another avenue to try. By spreading the word that rhino horn, pangolin scales, elephant tusks, tiger/lion penis/bones have NO MEDICINAL VALUE and they are ILLEGAL to buy, you can help educate people in the countries mainly responsible for the demand. And be sure to tell them it’s not cool to buy those products either since a huge part of the market in many countries isn’t actually traditional medicine, but ego and status. Feel free to share a photo of a poached rhino with them, so they can see how their ignorance/greed/’whatever it is compelling them to buy or sell illegal products’ is leading to this disgusting massacre of life.

People keep bringing up legalising trade. Study after study has shown that not only will legalising trade not help, but given the amount of time it will take to change the laws that allow trade, there will be no rhino left if it ever gets legalised. Let’s not forget the ethical side of trade as well. Or the sociological one. Or the environmental one. Farming rhino is not a walk in the park, nor is it good for the environment or the rhino. In fact, the only things it benefits are the owner selling it to the middle man, and the middle man selling it to the buyer.

Rhino must be knocked out with anesthesia every time you want to cut off their horn. Every time. Not only is this not good for the animal in general, continued activity such as dehorning causes behavioural changes, stresses the animal out and leaves it more susceptible to disease. It also means the rhino has no horn to defend itself. That, in turn, can affect the wild populations. Disease can knock out an entire crash of privately owned rhino. And then who will meet the demand? Sorry, folks. We gotta go back to poaching because there’s not enough rhino horn available legally.

As more people can GET rhino, more people WANT rhino. And that’s a whole other black hole. The DEMAND side has to change, whether we legalise it or not. Because we will NEVER be able to keep up with the demand. The elephants are a great example. We never bothered to deal with the demand side. We legalised ivory sales again. And elephant poaching went wildly out of control (and continues to spiral downward at an uncontrollable rate).

Today, I am asking you to start your own challenge. Like with the Ice Bucket Challenge, I ask YOU to spread the word about rhino poaching and the illegal wildlife trade. Get people to get involved in the fight. Take a photo of yourself doing your best rhino impression, tag it with “#SaveOurRhino” and upload it to every social media account you have. And, and this is one of the most important parts, TAG OTHER PEOPLE and ask them to do the same. And then physically get involved.

Combatting illegal wildlife trafficking is going to take the help of people all over the world. You aren’t just saving an amazing animal (and by default, if we curb poaching, we are in fact saving MANY species of animals). You are saving millions of people’s jobs and the economies of entire countries; you are fighting terrorism and the illegal drug/human/wildlife trafficking trade; you are doing your part to sustain the planet and its incredible biodiversity. If there isn’t a worthier cause than that, I’d love to know what it is.

Please help. Share this post. Get involved. DO SOMETHING!

Video: Critically Endangered Black Rhino Calf Hit the Ground Running Hoedspruit’s young orphan rhino, Gertjie

I know many people have never had the fortune to see these animals in the flesh, except for maybe in a zoo (and speaking from experience, I can tell you it isn’t the same thing as seeing them in the wild). But if you’ve never seen a baby rhino, please watch the video above. It will melt your heart. And maybe it will further convince you to get involved.

While I am using a happy video rather than a brutal and violent poaching one, I’m doing so for no one’s benefit but my own. I’m tired of seeing massacred rhino, so for my own sake, I want to share something positive. But I am not promising anything for the future. I do believe that if you shield your eyes from the truth, you’ll never acknowledge it. So be warned that an ugly, heartbreaking one will likely surface at some point if that’s what it takes to get people to get off their butts and actively involved in fighting this war on wildlife (and on ourselves).

That’s today’s buzz from the bush.

All rights reserved. ©2015 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, Animal, Big 5, Conservation, Education, legislation, Lion, nature, poaching, Rhino, South Africa, trophy hunting, United States, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why I came to Africa – It all comes back to one of my heroes

a fly on the wall

a fly on the wall

We cannot live through a single day without making an impact on the world around us — and we have a choice as to what sort of difference we make… Children are motivated when they can see the positive results their hard work can have.  – Jane Goodall

When I was a little girl, I was fascinated by Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. At the time, the show was only on on Sunday nights, so if you missed it, you missed out. There was no DVR, and episodes weren’t replayed twelve times a week. You were basically just SOL (shit outta luck). I would plan my days to make sure I didn’t miss an episode, and I was broken up if I did (especially if the episode was about animals I loved most, like sharks, apes, big cats, or elephants).

What I recall most vividly about those documentaries were two things: 1. they were so much less sensationalised (nay, they weren’t even REMOTELY sensationalised) than much of the crap that Nat Geo and Discovery air now – Shark Week, for example, has devolved into a joke, much to my dismay; and 2. there were women involved who were doing things other than painting their nails and shopping. They were tromping through mud and swamps and desert, bundu bashing, 4-x4ing their way around remote locales and hidden paradises. They were living in and among the natural world, connected to something I felt so separated from in my little NJ home by the sea.

My little heart yearned to join these women, to step away from what everyone thought was my pre-determined life, to flee the shackles of what was expected of me. My body ached with the desire to breathe the air at the top of Kilimanjaro, or to swim with whale sharks in Madagascar, or to stealthily slip through the dense brush as I searched for some new species, or to climb the steep ravines and hillside tracking gorillas in the mist like Dian Fossey. I wanted out. And I wanted outside.

I met Jane Goodall through those documentaries, and she changed my life.

Now, the reality is, I’ve never ACTUALLY met Jane Goodall. I would love to meet her one day, but I haven’t yet. I HAVE read so much of her work, and I’ve learned tremendous amounts about animal behaviour from her. But more importantly, I learned that I, as a female, could go hang out in the bush with the animals and IT WAS OKAY. Not only was it okay, it was awesome!

Thanks, Jane, for inspiring me to toss behind my life in America and drop myself into the colourful madness of South Africa, with nary a job in sight, doing the kinds of things I wanted to be doing. But it all worked out in the end.

I’d like to think everyone in this world has their own Jane to push them, to remind them to live out their dreams, to inspire them to care about more than just themselves. I hope that maybe I am a Jane to some people, that I’ve done something or been someone who has inspired others to live their best life. One can only hope.

I doubt I will ever achieve even an iota of what this remarkable woman has achieved. But that will never stop me from trying.

Thanks, Jane. Though we may never meet, know that you have touched another life profoundly. By the way, how cool is this book? Me…Jane

And that’s today’s #buzzfromthebush.monkeys at play

 

All rights reserved. ©2015 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, American, Bush, Conservation, Education, Expat, nature | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

All things big and small – grace among the wild things

Lenny climbs out of his crib

Leonard, the little castaway

Lenny climbs to get a better view

Lenny climbs to get a better view

I read an article today that actually caused me to stop what I was doing. I focused. This doesn’t happen often. It was called “When Nature Speaks, Who Are You Hearing?” The reason I mention it is that something about what I read compelled me to start writing. For this, I apologise. There’s a good chance that no matter how hard I try to keep this post from rambling off into the stratosphere, it probably will, despite my best intentions. I blame my befuddled brain.

If you’re wondering where I’ve been, to be honest, I’ve been struggling to write lately. Too much work, too little energy, too much pressure on myself to produce something of Pulitzer calibre. Which, let’s be honest, is not likely. I mean, it’s not like I’ve ever let my fear of not saying something profound keep me from saying something anyway. But lately I’ve been feeling…I don’t know. Pensive? Apprehensive? Doubtful? Not sure what it is. Maybe it’s all of the above. But I haven’t wanted to write. Or, better yet, I haven’t felt I had anything to say that anyone might care to hear. I’ve actually been feeling lost in my thoughts. Like I’m in a full-on lexicographic labyrinth and I have no idea where I’m trying to go. I cannot find the magic words.

Since childhood, I have had a tenuous and tumultuous relationship with writing. Throughout life, I found myself using writing as an outlet for every ounce of darkness and light I had tucked inside me. And it seemed to scare people a little. Or a lot, if you were my parents. So it was something I was comfortable with, yet afraid of, if that makes any sense. It was yet another thing about me that made me different, and I was kind of tired of being different. I just wanted to be.

For as long as I can remember, I have found myself unable to grab the right word out of my brain to say exactly what it is I want to say. I don’t like public speaking for this same reason. And I always get told I speak too quickly, which is equivalent to being told you need to chill out, you need to calm down, you need to be someone you are not. I cannot help that my brain moves faster than my tongue is capable of keeping pace. But whether it’s something I can control or not, hearing those words has kept me from opening my mouth in the first place. And by extension, it’s kept me from opening my thoughts up to scrutiny. I’ve held in much I would’ve loved to have bled out over the page. Lovely image, I know. But a verbal hemorrhage is sort of what I feel needs to happen.

What does this all have to do with me being in South Africa, loving my wildlife, and writing a headline such as the one this post has? Well, perhaps all the energy I’ve kept tightly bound inside has finally broken through some poorly defended section of my brain. Lately, I’ve felt like my entire body is on fire, reverberating with these wild vibrations that are pushing against my insides and squeezing my heart and lungs ever tighter and tighter. I often can’t breathe. It’s the closest approximation I have of what it must feel like to jump out of your skin.

Sitting here, listening to clicking stream frogs sending their unanswered love calls into the cool night air, I wonder some times whether I feel so tightly wound because I simply do not belong where I am. I mean that in a physical and a metaphysical way. I love the pulse of a city, but I melt in the masses of people, industry, technology and closed spaces. I don’t belong in cities. In nature, I feel like my whole being suddenly feels a release. And yet in the bush I’m still bound. I can’t just wander off, unless I have a death wish. I must stay within the confines of a small space, still watching the world from what feels like a large, wide-open window. I’m stuck in between.

baby monitor lizard

Morning with a monitor

It’s in times like these that I relish the small things. And I really mean the small things: the lizards, the frogs, the birds, the rodents, and yes, even the spiders and snakes. I feel more connected to the animals and invertebrates that cluster around the warmth of my home than I do the behemoths of the land that everyone comes to Africa to see. By no means am I implying I don’t like the big guys. Elephants, lions, rhinos, buffalo…I love them all. But I am disconnected from them. I cannot reach out and touch them. In many ways, they are as close to me as are the stars in the sky. I can watch, I can admire. But I cannot connect.

The smaller creatures come into my world, sharing my space with me. They sit with me, they chatter away to me, they eat my soap and my mosquitos. They keep me company in what can be a very lonely, cold world. And this unlikely friendship, if you can call it that, blesses my life with a sweet, gentle grace. I feel alive. I feel part of something. I feel real.

These little things never get the attention of their much larger wildlife cousins. For some reason, so many other people I’ve met seem to feel they don’t matter. Or they aren’t good enough to care about.

Before Waldo became an indoor frog

Waldo’s wilder cousin

I think about my little baby gecko, Leonard. Most people I know would not enjoy having geckos hatch in their clothes. I love it. I think it’s amazing that, regardless of all the things humans do to keep our species separate from everything else in the animal kingdom, the animal kingdom still sticks up its middle finger to us and finds a way in. I don’t like getting bitten or stung, but I also don’t begrudge other life from sharing this spinning blue and green ball with me. I say “Good morning” to my resident jumping spider. I usher ants, crickets and scorpions out of the way. People look at me as though there’s something wrong with me for doing these things. Why?

Perhaps it is exactly this question that has kept me from writing. Why? Why do we not love all things, big and small? Why do we discriminate against the creatures we don’t find appealing (for whatever reason, whether it’s their scales, their multiple legs, their ability to eat holes through our bags of flour, etc)? Who are we to choose what’s worth saving and what isn’t? What’s important and what isn’t? Are humans simply that shallow? “Why” is a very uncomfortable question for a lot of people in this world.

Usually when I ask why, I receive anger. I receive vitriol. How dare I ask something that begs someone to think! To answer for their behaviour! To answer, period! Well, why not? People seem to have no problem demanding that of me. Why can’t I ask the questions?

So, with this in mind, I will have to find a way to keep writing. Because someone has to ask. Someone has to wonder. I hope you will wonder with me.

My morning alarm

my incessantly pecking friend

Friendly sea creature

in an octopus’ garden

Mantid vantage

World upside down

 

All rights reserved. ©2014 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, American, Animal, Expat, Frog, gecko, nature, South Africa, Wildlife, writing | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Images from Varying States of Work in the South African Bush, or Yes, I Really Do Live in South Africa

I know; this is big. Two posts in one week. The world must be ending. So since I couldn’t include a picture with my last post, I thought I’d compile some silly pictures of me doing what I do best in the middle of the wilds of South Africa – which is look like an idiot. Between showering outside fully clothed because it was the only clean water available, and shoveling cheetah poo when the cats were focused on their morning meal, I certainly haven’t lacked in the ‘glamourous’ side of life out here. This post is specifically for the people convinced I don’t actually live in South Africa, and that what I really do is imagine these situations, cull images from the Internet that fit my tall tales and post it all as my own adventure, hoping no one ever notices. Well, though I prefer to keep pictures of myself to a minimum when there are much better things to look at here, I thought maybe it was time I revealed a little bit more of me to you. Which doesn’t sound right. Anyway, here is a gallery of me in various locations and doing various tasks. These are all family-friendly photos, I promise. There was also a video of me feeding goslings (no, not Ryan, sadly), but the file was too big and reducing it is currently well beyond my technological capacity and Internet bandwidth. Maybe someday you’ll get to see me doing my best Mother Goose impression. But I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were you.

 

All rights reserved. ©2014 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, American, Animal, Bush, cheetah, Education, Elephant, Expat, Lion, Rhino, South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

South African adventure follows me wherever I go!

I think my parents aren’t sure if I’m their child anymore. On Saturday night, my cousin and her husband came down to visit my mom and dad (and by extension, me). Tuckered out and ready for their hour-long drive home, they said their goodbyes, got in their car, and (we thought) drove off. Then the doorbell rang, and there they were. They had a flat.

Now, I’m not sure if any of the other females in my family have ever changed a tire (and by the way, it’s spelled ‘tyre’ in South Africa), or would even have the first clue how to do it, but I’m pretty positive they would’ve never done what I did next. There I was, wearing raggedy old jeans with more holes in them than a sieve, a t-shirt with Toilet Duck swimming across the chest and sitting barefoot on the asphalt at 11pm in the pouring rain, jacking up the car, loosening bolts and taking off the tire.

As part of the field guide training my fiance and I used to do, we had to teach the proper way to change tires. Flats and blowouts are common occurrences in the bush, and if you can’t change a tire on a Land Rover or Land Cruiser or other behemoth safari vehicle you’ll likely be driving around, you probably won’t have much luck finding a guiding job. It’s not like you can really ask your guests, who are paying a quarter of their year’s salary to stay at your lodge, to help.

Of course, in the bush you have to be able to do this with ginormous SUVs, under the watchful  eyes of half a dozen guests or more, and with the threat of large, toothy wildlife at your back. And you have to be able to use a high-lift jack, which makes these puny little jacks that come with your car look like metal toothpicks. If the high-lift jack breaks, it can kill you. Not only do you have to worry about a several-ton vehicle dropping on you like an elephant sitting on a flea, you have to steer clear of the jack itself, the likes of which have dismembered people on a good day. It’s a little more high-pressure.

Though I was indeed changing a tire for an SUV on Saturday night, the only eyes I had watching me were my family’s, and I’m sure they were in varying states of disbelief seeing me fearlessly brandishing a wrench and sublimely focused on the task at hand, completely oblivious to the dirt and grease smeared on my cheeks. My fiance would’ve been proud. After getting over their initial shock, I think my family was as well.

My cousin called the next day and said she was going to rename me Jake, the mechanic.

I wish I had a photo for you to accompany this, but alas, no one had the foresight to produce a camera, and my parents sure as hell do not know how to operate a smart phone (or even know what one is, for that matter). If I can set the stage for you to use your imagination….start by picturing a woman barefoot, in torn jeans and a sopping gray t-shirt with a graphic of Toilet Duck swimming across it, sitting Zen-like next to an SUV,  a wrench in one hand and balancing a tire with the other. Then expand your image out to encompass the bedlam surrounding her in the form of four adults in their 60s/70s bobbing and weaving in circles like confused chickens. You’ll be on the right track.

So many songs come to mind for this one, but this time around I’ll let you choose your own soundtrack.  Until next time….

Categories: Africa, American, Education, New Jersey, Training, United States | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

South Africa – To Be Afraid or to Not Be Afraid

Eland in the Karoo

Antelope mirrors in the Karoo

Recently I was asked what was the bravest thing I’ve ever done. Most people who know me would probably say me moving to South Africa was very brave. To that I would say that are right in some ways, but I don’t think I’d consider it the bravest thing I’ve ever done. However, for anyone who’s ever lifted off the bowlines and set sail, by car, plain, train, boat, horse or foot to a new destination, I’d say they certainly have at least one brave bone (if not an entire skeleton of them) in their body. It takes a lot of guts to change your life so dramatically.

But for me, bravery is about staying strong even when you’re feeling so very small. And this story is about one of those moments.

South Africa, though very cosmopolitan in places, and with most of the modern conveniences first-world countries take for granted, is still very different than those same countries. For one, crime really is bad here. Many South Africans have told me otherwise, but everyone I’ve met here has experienced some sort of crime, whether it was a mugging, car-jacking, house break-in, and in some cases, even gone so far as been a victim of rape and/or some other physically violent crime. The taxi drivers carry guns here, and I’ve been warned more than a dozen times to not honk at them or they might actually shoot me. I’ve been told this by people I trust, and who said it with no hint of irony or humour. They don’t honk at the taxi drivers either.

When I first started driving in South Africa, my fiance told me I must never stop at a stop light or stop sign after dark, and that if I see police lights behind me, to not pull over, but to instead drive to the nearest police station. Certainly didn’t make me feel comfy and cozy driving around, and certainly not something I expected to hear about a place known for its tourism, world-class hotels and restaurants, and reputation as the ‘Rainbow Nation.’

I’ve been told by many South Africans that the US is much more violent than South Africa. I feel the need to set the record straight on that. Yes, the US has plenty of crime. But in terms of levels and percentages, it isn’t even close to that of South Africa. I lived in three major cities – New York, Washington, DC and Los Angeles. In none of those places did I ever have to live in a compound brimming with video surveillance cameras and locked down with fences and metal bars on every possible window, door or small opening. While I did live in what are considered nicer sections of those cities, even the nicest sections of Cape Town and Joburg have considerable crime, both non-violent AND violent. In South Africa, we live in walled compounds surrounded by home security systems and the alarm company not only on speed dial, but offering patrol cars that constantly monitor the streets. My friend’s sister was mugged right outside her house the other day by a kid who wanted her cell phone. It’s not pretty. To be honest, I’d rather take my chances in the bush than in any city in South Africa.  I’ve never met a lion who’d pull a knife on me over a laptop or an iPhone.

But the bush DOES have it’s share of human dangers. In fact, the reserve I worked on up in Limpopo had apparently seen a few murders committed by the two-legged primate known as man. I’d go so far as to say the most dangerous places in the world are the ones inhabited by people.

The following story is one of the few instances in my life where I was truly afraid. And it was one of the few times in my life when I also felt truly brave. Funny that they often go hand in hand like that.

When I was living on the reserve out in the Karoo (an arid region north/northeast of Cape Town), I lived in a small house by myself. It was connected to another little row of rooms/houses, none of which were occupied while I was there because they were under construction. My kitchen opened into one of the cheetah enclosures, so I always knew I’d be safe from that side of the house (provided the cats didn’t break down the door, which they did threaten to do every morning when they saw the lights come on in my kitchen and they thought I had breakfast for them). However, the front of my house faced another empty house and an unlit walkway, and the other side faced the very empty and open Karoo. The fourth wall was connected to another house, so it didn’t actually ‘face’ anything but a lot of concrete)

People walk off into the Karoo and disappear. The landscape is like an infinite horizon that doubles back on itself, with a stubble of low shrub and hardy grasses and a terra firma sea of dusty mirages and dried up dams. On moonless nights, the sky is a blanket of stars shimmering like sequins against a silvery satin dress. On cloudy nights, blackness envelops you like a velvet curtain and you can’t see so much as your hand in front of your face.

Karoo before rain

crusty pan screaming for rain

My cell phone had no reception at my house; I had no landline. I didn’t have a working two-way radio. The reserve had yet to provide me with one (which was one of the first indicators that my employers did not give a whit about their employees – they made no effort to get me one for the first few weeks I was there, and not even after this incident, or the one when I was bitten by one of the cheetah and couldn’t contact anyone for help). I was therefore alone in the equivalent of a desert, with no way to call anyone if anything were to happen to me. In fact, my best defense might have been simply letting the cats into my kitchen so they could attack whomever came after me.

I kept a Bowie knife under my pillow alongside a massive Maglite torch (aka flashlight). And every night I listened for the squeaky gate that led to my front door, the telltale sign that someone or something was prowling around my house. The gate was too high and too flimsy for anyone to jump over, so I had some peace of mind knowing that if anyone tried to break in, they had to go through that crappy gate and alert me of their presence. One of the few times I’m glad my ex-employers took care of nothing on the reserve – in a better lodge, the hinges would’ve been replaced and I would’ve never heard a sound.

When I first got to the reserve, my house wasn’t ready. They still hadn’t cleaned it up from the previous tenant and the miserable blue macaw that lived with her and left several months’ worth of bird shit caked into the ground around his stoop. So I stayed in a tiny but well-lit and secure rondavel near the field guides. I ended up moving into the house a day earlier than expected, which is what probably caused the incident. I think people figured no one was in the place yet, and they could take advantage of the empty house full of goodies like tableware and bedding. I’ve realised that people, when they want to and think they can get away with it, will steal just about anything, including a spatula.

At any rate, at around 12:30am, I heard my front gate scrape, soft footsteps padding across my little yard, and then the front door rattling. Someone was clearly trying to get in. I then heard some muffled and disgruntled whispers as they tried again. At this, I turned on the flashlight. Alarmed by the light, my potential intruders immediately scuttled away through the gate. I heard their car doors slam shut as they got into a car and drove off.

I immediately checked the area around my house, and then booked it to the closest neighbor, who happened to be one of the lodge managers. I relayed the story and we got into one of the lodge’s trucks and drove around looking for suspicious cars in places they shouldn’t be. It probably wasn’t the brightest idea for two women to be speeding around the reserve in the middle of the night, but we did need to get a read on where everyone was, and if anyone or any cars where missing.

While we were driving, the lodge manager informed me that quite a few of the workers were very disgruntled, did not like the owners, and were plotting on robbing the lodge blind any chance they got. I think they were hoping tonight was one such chance, and that they could take advantage of whatever goodies were in my place while it was still empty. After realizing the empty house wasn’t so empty, though, they tucked tail and never came back.

The next day I checked the tracks left by the night visitors and their escape vehicle. They hadn’t bothered to try and cover them up. It was easy to identify the type and size of the shoes they wore by their tread. The same goes for the truck they drove. There was enough evidence to figure out who my ‘guests’ were – and they were indeed people who worked at the lodge.

We called the lodge owners the next day and told them what happened, but did not mention any names or point fingers. I thought, given what happened and how vulnerable we were, that it would be more appropriate for the owners to initiate a real investigation so there was no bad blood against either the lodge manager or myself. My employers were so clearly concerned about us that they blew it off. Couldn’t be bothered. They told us we were overreacting. Nothing was done. And as I found out, that was how they handled everything at that lodge. The employees don’t matter; we can always find new ones.

That was the second mark against them. The cheetah bite would be the last and final blow against that shitshow.

When I returned to my house that afternoon, I checked my bedroom window, which another employee told me didn’t lock. It hadn’t locked for two years. My employers insisted it was fixed. When I checked, it was still broken. No effort had ever been made to sort out the lock or the window.

I slept with the knife and torch under my pillow until the day I left that job, only a few short weeks later.

 

All rights reserved. ©2014 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, Conservation, Karoo, South Africa, United States, Western Cape | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

South African Adventure – Finding Home

Jersey Shore ghosts of the past

Okay, so today’s post is NOT about wildlife.   It’s personal.   I know, not my style, but whatev.  Life without change and chaos is boring.

General consensus from several sources give the definition of ‘homesick’ as acutely longing for one’s family or home.  ‘Nostalgic’ seems to be the reality-immune bedfellow of homesick, as in you get nostalgic for ‘home’ and ‘home’ is this mythical wonderland that exists in your mind until you actually return to that place in person and realize it was all a very elaborate hoax by your mind to prevent you from ever finding peace and contentment anywhere else.   One of the ultimate ironies and frustrations in life is that the more places you live, the less you are able to actually define and find ‘home,’ and the less you ever feel at home anywhere.  With the arrival of each new place, new memories are created, new histories and stories to add to the stockpile of data from which to draw a picture of this mythical ‘home,’ yet the quilt you sew is too disparate as to have any unifying element aside from your presence in those memories.  Your friends from when you lived in Thailand will probably never meet your childhood friends (who also might not even know each other), or your friends from living in Canada.  Your spheres don’t mesh; they overlap slightly here and there, just enough to make you think there is a thread you can hang on to, but not enough thread to build a thick enough rope to tie you to one place and one place alone.  The more you change your surroundings, in fact, the less you are ever able to find yourself settled anywhere, perhaps owing to the ‘grass is always greener’ mindset that plagues humanity.  Or perhaps it is just that while we can believe that home is a theoretical term for a place that only exists within us, we nonetheless search all our lives for it in external sources.  Such thinking has done nothing less than to cause wars.

I used to think that the place where I grew up was ‘home,’ even though I went as far away from there as possible, as soon as possible.  I used to have this hazy image, like an old photograph, of what that place looked like, and memories would play through my head like old home movies full of Instagram-like unnatural color, light, and sound.  What I remembered was only a flutter of the reality, but I held to that flawed image, determined to keep my idealized childhood intact.  All the bad disappeared into my fantasy reproduction of the reality, with Dorothy whispering in my ear that there’s no place like home.  The ‘inadequacy’ of the homes every place I’ve ever lived since living there stems from that imaginary mental cloud.   No matter how I try, I cannot erase it, nor can I seem to push past it, and as such, I’ve since always felt emotionally and psychologically homeless, even when I return there.   Once in a while I go someplace where I forget for short period of time, but they invariably come back, and in certain times nothing I do can push those images from once again bubbling up and taking over.  Yet every time I return there, I can’t help but feel lost, out of place and unable to find common ground with the place I grew up.  My politics, my worldview, my experiences are so vastly different from the people I knew growing up, including my family, and though we can talk about things and share our stories, I find myself unable to identify with that world anymore.  I find myself feeling utterly alone in the one place I should theoretically feel comfortable and at home.

I started feeling ‘homesick’ again a few weeks ago when I realized that for the first time in my life, I would not be back on US soil at all in 2012.  Not even to pass through on my way to somewhere else.  For whatever reason, that struck a somber chord with me, prompting all these lonely, sad feelings to well up from who knows where.  This ‘homesick’ feeling took a turn for the worse when Hurricane Sandy showed up and decimated the area where I grew up.  Photos showing the collection of destroyed beaches, roads, boardwalks and towns where I spent my childhood drove home this feeling that no matter where I go and what I do, my fictionalized and romanticized ‘home’ will never even be the image I had in my mind of it, because that image has now been wiped out by the Atlantic Ocean.  So here I am, 10,000 miles and a more than a few years away from my childhood, and the one place in the world, for better or for worse, that I could always call home is essentially gone.  Yes, NJ is still on the map, but the boundaries, all the lines and roads and dimensions I remember are now redrawn, and some are gone altogether.  It feels like nothing less than having your childhood erased.

Where does that leave me, now?  South Africa is not home.  Though I’ve gotten used to the new world in which I live, it will never be home to me, because for me, home is being settled, being accepted, and accepting a place for what it is.  Here I am told that even if I am the best driver in the world, I will not pass my driver’s test unless I bribe someone.  Same goes for getting a marriage license and many other legal documents.  I can’t accept that.  In addition, this is a place that continues to tell me, through various manners, that my heritage and I aren’t wanted here.  Many, in fact most, people I’ve met here have told me they hate America and Americans, even though they’ve never been to the US and don’t actually know any Americans themselves.  Yet they never seem to see the irony of that or the fact that almost all of the movies, music, products they consume (and often illegally consume) come from that ‘hateful’ land and those ‘hateful’ people, as does a considerable amount of the world’s crisis aid.  And I – and several other American expats I know have also experienced this – have found that many of the people here have been significantly less accepting of and friendly to ‘outsiders’ than their counterparts Stateside.  Even my South African fiancé has said as much, cursing his homeland often because of this, because of the blatant and inherent corruption alive and well here, and because of the overall inefficiency that seems to be a hallmark of this continent overall.  As much as I try to accept that, I can’t, nor can I change it.  Trust me, I’ve tried.  I’ve had a lot of people who agreed with me, but none willing to do anything about it.  So no matter how much I can love this land, it will never be my home.

Funny how much more you identify with the place from which you come when you aren’t there.  I am Jersey, born and bred, like it or not.  I can live in the bush until I die, but I will always be Jersey.  And you know what?  I’m pretty damn proud of that and of my little home state.  I’ve seen countless acts of kindness, compassion and understanding from my fellow Jerseyans come out of Sandy’s destruction.   I’ve watched complete strangers work together to help people whose lives have been irreparably changed.  And I’ve been sad that I couldn’t be there to work alongside them and help rebuild.  My heart longs to walk those roads again, to ride those amusement park rides, to share Italian ice with friends on the beach, even though I know it is impossible.  But none of this changes the fact that it is no longer home.  Nowhere, it seems, is these days.  And that is a feeling I have to learn to accept, or I condemn myself to a life of continually driving myself to find something that doesn’t really exist anywhere outside my mind.

Song of the day: Many come to mind, but at the moment, ‘Home’ by Michael Buble hits the spot.

 

All rights reserved. ©2012 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, American, Expat, New Jersey, South Africa, United States | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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