checking in

Today every time my son got upset, he cried, “I just want to be back in Canada.” Or “I want to get on the plane to Canada tomorrow!” When he’s happy, like if he’s just come out of the pool or we’re at the beach, he says, “I’m so happy to be in this country!” I understand exactly how he feels, alternating between “We only have a bit more than a week left, and we’ve barely done anything or seen anyone!” and “Oh wouldn’t it be nice to feel at home and safe again? That said, I think we’re finally getting our land legs here in Cape Town. We’ve been here for more than a week now, and it’s largely been spent dealing with rental car, cell phone and electricity issues. This is the downside of renting a private home instead of staying in a B&B or a hotel, I guess. The upside is having a whole lot of privacy.

Actually today and yesterday were quite nice. Yesterday we went to the waterfront, and went out on a short harbour cruise, because my son was superkeen to go on a boat ride, and then the aquarium, which he also enjoyed. Today we had lunch in Company Gardens and wandered through the South African Museum. The last couple of nights we’ve made dinner at home, and they were decidedly more successful than the fish biltong my husband barbecued in our first attempt at a home-cooked meal.

I also finally began my photo project today… no photos, but meeting contacts and getting oriented in the area I want to photograph. I’m nervous that it’s bigger than I can reasonably do in the short time left, but I might as well try to do as much as I can before we leave.

I’m reminded of an old boyfriend, who advised me one night when we were walking home from the local swimming hole and a thunderstorm hit. I was kind of freaking out, convinced we’d be struck by lightning, and my legs kind of didn’t work. When I told him I thought we were going to die, he replied that that may well be, but he wanted to get as close to home as possible before it happened. So we ran. And we made it home. It’s a principle that I’ve applied in many situations, and I may as well apply it here too.

I’d forgotten just how uncomfortable travelling is, especially with a young child. Though I think it would be A LOT more uncomfortable for me to attempt travelling this far without my son. I  like keeping my family near me. And we’ve never been big night life people anyways. I wonder what memories, if any, my son will retain from this trip?

I’ve posted a few pics to flickr, although we pay for the internet by the MB so not many. Plus, I haven’t actually been taking many photos yet. Here are a few:





There’s a few more on flickr, if you’re interested.

morning, day 2

Yesterday morning, I was woken first by the call of a hawdidaw, then by a rooster (who’s got a rooster in suburban Cape Town???), then I just laid there and enjoyed the rest of the morning’s sounds coming in an open window. This is always what I enjoy most about the first days of summer in Canada too: hearing the daily sounds of life. A dog bark, some traffic, and the wind in the leaves. Always the wind. I don’t know why they call Chicago The Windy City when there is Cape Town. Yesterday and last night it was windy; when my jet lag woke me in the middle of the night, I even heard things banging around – in our yard or the neighbour’s I’m not sure.

Sometime after I fell back to sleep, though, the wind must have died down because this morning it is still and already warm. Today we get our rental car. I’m nervous about driving in the city on the other side of the road, but I think it will be good for us to explore the area more independently than we have in the past. Last night as I laid awake, I couldn’t help but ask myself: why am I continually pushing myself outside my comfort zone??? Why can’t I just stay at home and chill out in my safe little world? Sometimes it almost feels like a moral imperative to me, like discomfort (not physical but emotional discomfort – the byproduct of intimacy and new experiences) is next to godliness or something.

My father-in-law has lent me some of his books by Stephen Watson, a Cape Town poet and professor at UCT. I’m reading a writer’s diary, which is just as it says. I chuckled at this entry, from 21 December 1995, written while he was in New York City:

“There are certain environments, particularly these post-industrial cities, which are clotted with words in the same way that certain landscapes are polluted by filth. Words proliferate here like layers in a landfill: all psychic space is overpopulated with them. At the same time they float free of all signification, losing their substances as a result.


Words, no less than human beings, need a certain amount of space in order to mean, to be. Failing that, the very feel of the language starts changing, losing its reality. One gets the emergence of phenomena like postmodernism which at times strike one as simply a way of shifting the word-garbage around when it’s grown too deep to be disposed of.”

And later, on 27 December 1995:

“[R]eliance on cliché is not only a reflection of a kind of collective crassness; it is also an index to a certain form of brutality. Clichés being the dead wood of language, they provide the verbal clubs with which people commonly beat others about the head.”

Now, I think it’s about time I woke my husband and son and we got on with our day.

bon voyage to me!

Alright, we’re packed. All the zippers are zipped. Tickets and passports are in my purse. And we have almost two hours until we get picked up to go to the airport. So what now? Figured I may as well take a moment to blog.

I’m pretty excited about some of the contacts I’ve made. I’ve got a bit of a plan for a personal photography project while I’m there, which I won’t go into detail about here yet, since it might be a total flop and I might end up taking a completely different direction. I’ve also been in touch with Iliso Labantu, a collective of township photographers in Cape Town. I’m bringing my old D70s to donate to them, and it happens that they’re having one of their flash photo weekends while we’re there. So I’m planning to go to that, both to shoot a little bit and to help some of the photographers improve their shooting and editing. I’m so stoked. I’ve always believed that it’s better to enable marginalized people to photograph their communities and lives themselves than to photograph it yourself — not that it’s wrong to photograph marginalized people, of course, but it is problematic — so I’m just delighted to get this opportunity to see that kind of work in action.

I’ve also been in touch with a tribal fusion belly dance troupe, so I’m hoping to catch a performance and maybe a rehearsal.

And of course, we have some wonderful family to visit. And the summer. We’re so deep in winter that it’s really an act of imagination to consider what summer will actually feel like. I know intellectually that during the summer you can walk outside in barefeet but I can’t really remember what that feels like beyond really, really nice.

I’m really looking forward to staying in one city for our whole stay. In the past we’ve travelled around to visit other family, and while I’m sad we won’t see them, I’m relieved to be staying put.

See you on the flip side!



It was my son’s birthday on Sunday. We left the decorations up, because why not? (Also because I knew the ones on the window would make interesting shadows and because I love balloons in photographs.)

[insert segue here]

I forgot a few bits from Transforming Cape Town that I wanted to share in my last post. One is that in a 2001 survey of 65 schools across all provinces of South Africa, 76 percent of grade seven students didn’t know what Apartheid was and 98 percent were unaware of township grievances under Apartheid. A principal of an innovative primary school in Lavender Hill (an Apartheid-created township in Cape Town), says, “I want to teach these children why they live in Lavender Hill, why Lavender Hill exists, why life here is thew ay it is, why the government would build a sewage treatment plant across the street from a primary school in the middle of the community. I want them to know it’s not their fault that they live here.”

And this, which I think is true around the world:

“For those who live in material comfort, the possibility of being irrevocably drawn into a relationship with the impoverished can be unsettling; the need is so great, one’s contributions are never enough, so to protect onself perhaps it’s best to carefully limit one’s associations and contributions. The fear of being confronted with uncomfortable truths — anger, rage, resentment — looms large.”

I have about 50 pages left in the book, and I’m keen to finish it before we get on the plane.

where have I been???

Once upon a time I composed blog posts in my head as I went about my day. At the first opportunity, I sat down at the computer and the words just ran out of my fingertips. It was easy to blog.

These days it isn’t so easy. I always considered myself an ethical semi-anonymous blogger but blogging under my real name seems to have muzzled me a bit. Also, I just don’t have that constant blog post composer running in my head all day. Instead, I have songs on repeat, endless To Do lists, and topics I want to learn more about. If I do occasionally find myself mentally stringing a few sentences together, they disappear before I find myself with wordpress in front of me. I suppose this is a very long, drawn-out apology for my silence. I’d like to promise better performance but I can’t help but wonder if perhaps my blogging peak is just behind me.

Anyways, we’re going to Cape Town in less than two weeks (Ack!!!!). My goal is to undertake a more intentional photography project while I’m there than I have before, but to do it in a way that doesn’t compromise the family visit and holiday aspect. I’m not sure if it’s possible but I’m going to try.

I’ve been reading Transforming Cape Town, published in 2008 by an American anthropologist, and it’s truly absorbing me. It’s making me realize just how naive I was about Apartheid. I knew it was bad but I didn’t realize just how bad. And I knew its legacies would take generations to overcome but I didn’t realize just how insidious and numerous those legacies are. A few facts that are sticking in my mind:

- the 2001 census indicates that 39 percent of Cape Town’s households earn incomes below R19,200 per year (at today’s exchange rate that’s about $2700 CDN. In other words less than we’re spending on airfare to get there.
- a 2002 report quoted in the book says that a quarter of blacks are unemployed (although in some townships the figures reach 70 percent) but only 3 percent of whites are unemployed. I’ve always heard that it’s very difficult to get accurate unemployment figures in the townships because of all the informal settlements in South Africa – nobody knows exactly how many people live in them, and people are always moving in.
- One person quoted in the book said that the most shocking thing about the end of Apartheid was seeing pornography for the first time. This speaks to me of just how effectively the government censored absolutely everything.
- Before Apartheid, Cape Town was the least segregated city in South Africa. Post-Apartheid, it is the most segregated city in the country.
- The racially segregated neighbourhoods created by the Group Areas Act remain largely unchanged. Under this legislation, thousands of families were evicted from their homes and removed to townships that were and are far from the city centre and jobs without decent public transit.

The book contains a good mix of introspection and personal stories of people the author met while in Cape Town between 1999 and 2004. In university my friends and I had a habit of dismissing all other fields of study besides ours (English). I always considered anthropology deeply flawed because of its emphasis on the people being observed to exclusion of the people doing the observation. This book is changing my mind, in large part due to the author’s introspection and initial disillusionment with the field of anthropology. In many cases, I think I could easily apply these thoughts to the act of photography – or at least the kind I aspire to do. For example:

“Intensive fieldwork is a gloss that covers a vast array of promiscuous techniques and messy encounters.”

“anthropology’s use of the phrase participant-observation to describe our research technique doesn’t clarify what we really do, which is watching. Watching people interact and situations unfold is actually a much more threatening undertaking than the neutral-sounding observing, a fact often well understood by those we watch.”

I think I still need to come to terms with my watching.

Here are a few more quotes that stopped me in my tracks:

“We as a world need South Africa to succeed and pioneer a model for meeting the challenges of poverty and racism.”

“The glamorized representation of poor people’s homes in the book [Shack Chic] suggest a new aesthetic – poverty fashion? – that celebrates the innovative creativity of the poor while saying nothing about the injustice of poverty.”