A Lizard with no Legs

15 04 2010

There are many things
that Sunny and I love about Cape Town.
The hikes,
the sunshine,
the calamari,
the views of Table Mountain
which never ever
underwhelm me.

I also love living in the midst of transition,
or at least living in a society,
that acknowledges the hiccups, snares and complete mistakes
of transition to democracy.
Life is messy here,
and most of the time,
people admit it.

But one thing we miss
are genuine friends.
People are nice enough,
sort of.
And we’ve made some friends,
sort of.
But all of it feels just like that:
sort of.

After being here a few weeks,
someone asked,
“Have you experienced it yet?
The Cape Town way?
We over promise and under deliver.
Sure, we’ll invite you to a braai,
and we’ll even really want to have you over,
but we’re all busy,
we think we’re so busy,
and consequently,
no one follows through.
It’s just the way we are.”

I smiled at the accurate description of my experiences,
yet also found it interesting
that this friend of mine,
who was on the one hand so self-aware,
didn’t see that he could ,
in fact
both invite me and have me over for dinner
simple as pie.

There’s more to it than the busyness.
I feel a hesitation, a carefulness, an almost
stand-offishness
to get to know strangers.
People are so used to their tall walls and electric fences.
For some of the white population,
I think they’re not sure how much more newness they want to let in.
For some others,
they might not even be able to imagine
that we would want to enter into their lives,
see their homes,
eat their food.

And to be fair,
Americans are a dime a dozen here,
and our track record for being
compassionate, non-judgmental and honest global neighbors
is not fantastic.

On Sunday,
we went hiking.
As I was crossing some rocks,
I saw a slither in the crevice
and I jumped and hopped,
leaving Sunny on the other side.

“A snake! A snake!”
I yelled as I tigger-jumped
away from the site.

“Where?” he asked.

“It’s there! It’s there!!”

He managed to cross
and we kept going.
But halfway to the top,
I saw another set of eyes
peering out from under a rock.

“Another one!” I squealed.
“Watch out!”

On our way down,
I saw a woman about my age
stopped on the trail,
staring at the ground.

“What is it?” I asked.

“I don’t know. A snake.” she said.

“Is it bad?” I asked.

“I’m not sure,” she replied. “I’m never sure which one is what.”

“Do you think I can cross?” I asked.

“Probably,” she said, not moving, “but I’m going to wait.” she said.

Just then her husband and kids approached,
and she apprised him of the situation.

“Let’s take a look!” he exclaimed,
and bent down to where the snake rested.

“A ha! I see! It’s not a snake at all.
It’s just a lizard with no legs!
Here, let me show you.”

He invited us down to watch it squirm up the trail
and he pointed out its little stubs of legs
that must have fallen off
and were just beginning to re-grow.

“You see, it moves like a lizard, not a snake.
Not a snake at all.
It’s just trying to find its legs.”

“By the way, I’m Jeff!”
he exclaimed,
sticking out his hand.

As we walked away,
Sunny and I widened our eyes at each other.

“Wow.” he said.

“Wow.” I said. “They were so nice to us!”

It felt by far
the friendliest interaction we’ve had,
and I think it had something to do with names.

No one asks us our names here.
They ask all about my grant
and where we live
but they don’t ask our names.
It’s almost like,
by that omission,
they’re admitting
that they aren’t planning to see us again,
or they’re not going to invest
in the trouble
of committing a name to memory.

At the end of class yesterday,
I loudly (and perhaps too forcefully)
challenged an American student
to re-phrase his question.
He asked all sixty of us
why people keep talking about current injustice
when they don’t have solutions to fix things.
“The argument is getting tiring,” he said,

“Tiring for who?” I asked accusingly,
trying to restrain myself,
as I thought,
how dare this twenty year-old kid
complain that after three months of studying abroad,
he’s tired of hearing about the legacies of apartheid.

Everyone else in class was silent
or nervously laughing,
and I realized,
I’m unleashing maybe too much of my anger
on this student,
whose name I haven’t bothered to learn.

A woman followed me out,
the only South African in the class.
“Thanks for saying something.” She began.
“I wanted to, but…I don’t know.
By the way, I’m Raksha.”

Today,
someone invited Sunny and me to a braai.
I don’t know if he’ll follow through,
But I think I’m going to believe that he will.

I’m beginning to wonder
if the secret to all these South African interactions
is being able to see through the rocks,
and recognize the lizards
who are just trying to find their legs.

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2 responses

17 04 2010
stefan

i don’t think those capetowners have the lock on lack of follow through. our fences are just invisible. you’re coming to our house for a braii whatever that is when you’re back

18 04 2010
livethequestionsnow

Hey Fano,
There are indeed many similarities between here and there. And then, there are also some particularities. Fun stuff to talk about when we come have dinner with you in two months!

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