New Jersey

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 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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