My first stop was a local day school, where I taught a class to a few dozen high-school students. The group was fun and engaging, and I wish we’d had more time together.
From the students’ attire, you’d think it was winter. And it was. But it was a Johannesburg winter, which bears more resemblance to summer in New York. It was pretty cold in the morning, but the hot African sun warmed things up quickly. Most striking was the dryness, with levels approaching what I’d normally expect on an airplane.
Next up was the local radio station for an on-air interview. (More about that here.)
The timing, unfortunately, didn’t allow for me to see much of Johannesburg that day. I had a bit of time between events, but by early afternoon we had to set out for the hotel in the suburbs that would house my first conference stop. Because everyone was calling it a hotel, I expected, well, a hotel. It was more like a resort. And its beautiful setting formed the backdrop for the weekend, as I’ll describe next.
In retrospect, it was an obvious mistake to prejudge a whole country based only on one familiar accent. But as it turns out that’s what I did.
My destination was South Africa, and the people I knew from there spoke in an accent vaguely reminiscent of certain British dialects, so I reasonably if wrongly assumed that South Africa would be more or less like Great Britain, with, perhaps, a bit of Amsterdam thrown in. I realized I had made that subconscious assumption only when it was challenged by the reality I saw: South Africa is much more Africa than Europe.
My journey began in New York with the usual ninety minute drive to the airport. I arrived early, as New Yorkers always do, because the possibility of significant traffic all but forces a choice between early and late. Fortunately, Virgin Atlantic took good care of me in their “clubhouse,” which I call an airport lounge. Then it only took a six-hour overnight flight to London’s Heathrow, a ten-hour lay-over, and a second overnight flight, this one eleven hours, to bring me to Johanessburg’s O.R. Tambo international airport.
Right off the bat it was clear that I was in a new place. The airport staff were almost entirely black (and “black” is the preferred term), and, well, African. Wearing African combinations of western clothing, they spoke to me in African accents that revealed African native tongues. They spoke to one another in languages I couldn’t positively identify.
As is often the case, I needed two things before I left the airport: a local SIM card for my phone and a supply of the local currency, rands in this case. The first was easy. The second almost didn’t work. For the first time since the Internet was born, I found that my ATM card didn’t work. My modest cash withdrawal was refused. Fortunately I saw an American Express office, but even there — even with an organization I have always relied on for western convenience and customer service — it wasn’t easy. There was paperwork and computerwork involved in giving local rands to a traveler from the U.S., but the workers were equally unclear on the procedures for both. Some of the machines didn’t work. Nothing moved quickly.
Perhaps an hour later, I left the airport and headed into Johannesburg.
Though it’s South Africa’s largest city, Johannesburg isn’t the capital — or, I should say, isn’t one of the capitals, for the country boasts about three, even the number being a matter of occasional debate. Johannesburg itself is a huge sprawling mess of unplanning that arose in response to the discovery of gold there in the 1880s. But I didn’t see much of it on my first day.
Instead, I joined my fellow presenters and we drove out to my first real South African destination: Soweto. The name comes from “south western township.” It lies south-west of central Johannesburg. And it’s a “township,” which is to say, a black ghetto. The whites lived in cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town, while the blacks were confined to often undeveloped townships like Soweto — a racial division that was both enforced by law and augmented by other legal steps that kept the races apart.
Soweto was home to the famous “June 16” uprising of 1976, and literally home to Nelson Mandela, the man at the forefront of defeating the South African legal racial divisions. Mandela lived in Soweto for almost 20 years before a 27-year imprisonment, the result of his campaign to give blacks equal rights. After his release, he went on to serve as South Africa’s first black president. So to visit Soweto is to visit the past, present, and future of South Africa, all at once.
Unfortunately, I saw very little of the real Soweto. I visited Mandela’s former residence, now a museum, and walked around the adjoining streets. But they, too, were mostly a museum, with touristy shops selling pseudo-African art probably made in China, and touristy performers who were so out of place that even the locals stared.
Toward the end of our short visit to Soweto, a colleague and I approached a couple of local school kids with a single question in mind: What is it like to live here? We didn’t have time for the long conversation we wanted. And language and culture barriers made it difficult even to convey the question. But those very challenges tantalizingly hinted that we were right next to a fascinating story we would never hear.
As a thriller writer (even though, officially, “there are no spies” in Warwick), I was delighted to see the National Weather Service dabble in spycraft as the Alaska office sent out a coded message last week during the government shutdown:
It’s an old trick, but a good one. Read the first letter of each line to get the NWS’s secret message.
Their one mistake, of course, was getting caught.
Thanks to its intricate rhyming scheme and strong meter, I’ve always loved Robert Service’s poem “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” So I jumped at the opportunity to mimic it as I satirized the current government shutdown.
The first line came to me over breakfast: “There are strange things done in Washington…,” an obvious play on Service’s “There are strange things done in the midnight sun…” Then akin to Service’s “…by the men who moil for gold” I came up with “by the folks who forge our laws.”
Rhyming with “laws” is the obvious “flaws,” so that’s how I continued. “The Senate halls and quorum calls//have always had their flaws.” Not perfect, but good enough to keep me going.
It was 9:30am on Friday when I decided to write the poem, but I knew I had to leave the house by 5:00pm that day. I did a mental calculation. If I spent three hours writing, I’d have 30 minutes for lunch and still have four hours to record, produce, and upload the poem and a video of me reciting it. Doable, but barely.
I wanted at least one funny line in the middle, and a strong ending. Without that, there’d be no point.
I got the funny line pretty quickly. In the context of what the banks say:
“Just relax. Get off our backs,” they say. “And we’re still annoyed//
“That you bitch and moan about those loans that we made to the unemployed.”
Not riotous, but amusing, at least.
Around noon I figured out the ending:
This explains our awe for order and law, for the forces that keep us free//
To visit great parks, to enjoy the arts, to relax over afternoon tea.//
‘Tis been said before, but I’ll say it once more: Anarchy precedes every fall.//
But nonetheless, it’s true, I guess, that it beats no government at all.
So I was done by 12:30. Lunchtime. Then at 1:00 I started trying to record it.
Now, I despise being in front of a camera. Still, how hard could it be to read a four-minute poem?
Harder than you might think, it turns out.
But before I even started, I had to set up an amateur camera, in my case a Canon S95. Though primarily designed for still photography, it would record video.
For variety, I chose a pleasant outdoor spot for the recording. I didn’t want yet another video of a talking head against the backdrop of a plant, an office, or a table. At least my talking head would appear amid the beauty of fall foliage.
I had a fine outdoor chair to sit in, but I didn’t have a tripod. So I had to improvise, carefully balancing a side table on a second outdoor chair, then putting the camera on that. The camera ended up too high, but close enough. Without the table it would have been much too low.
And, obviously, being an author and not the president, I didn’t have a teleprompter at my disposal. And being an author and not a soap-opera actor, I couldn’t memorize four minutes of text quickly enough. So I printed out the poem and hastily taped it to the table.
I hit record, sat down, took a breath, and started reading.
Which was fine until the first gust of wind blew the page out of my view.
So I stopped, ran inside, grabbed more tape, and secured my text. Again I hit record, sat down, took a breath, and started reading.
One thing you may not know about me is that, in spite of my love of nature, I’m phobic about bugs that fly. So it was a deal-breaker when an insect landed on my glasses.
Inside again. Bug-spray. Back out. Record. Sit. Breathe. Read.
During one run I misread the hardest lines of the poem:
By that they mean the mighty machine of businesses large and small//
Whose inherent greed is just what we need to bring prosperity back to all//
The American folks who may have lost hope as they saw their fortunes shrink…
I made the easy if frustrating mistake of stopping after “back to all.”
In the end it took me an embarrassing half dozen takes to get all the words right, and even so, I had to combine two tries. But it was getting late, and I was running out of time.
So I took my took good readings — one of the first half of the poem and one of the second — and started editing.
Sadly, all I had was Windows Movie Maker, which is the technology equivalent of a toddler’s set of watercolor paints: good enough for a pro to do a fine job, but a major impediment for an amateur like myself.
Coming perilously close to my deadline, I got the two takes combined, mucked around with the titles until they were readable (I couldn’t figure out how to put a simple title at the top of the screen, though), and added credits at the end.
Time to save the thing (about 15 minutes of computer time!), upload it to YouTube, create and upload the closed-caption file, and put the whole thing together.
In the end, I finished just in time. It took me three hours to write four minutes of poetry, and four hours to turn it into a video.
The video is severely flawed. Even though I recorded it in high resolution, somewhere along the line (Windows Movie Maker?) it got downgraded. But there’s a silver lining to that goof: it masks the poor camera skills.
I’m not thrilled with my recitation, either. Another few takes and I feel like I could really have done a good job. But I had no time.
And, as is usually the case, I’m particularly dismayed with how I look on camera. But I think I have to get used to that.
All in all, it was a fun process, and it reminded me of the difficulty of releasing to the world something that with another hour or two could have been much better.
I hope you enjoy it.
As I said, Alaska is humongous. Gigantic. Bigger than that, really. Much bigger.
Bizarrely, things therefore look small, because everything is so far away.
The contradiction jumped out at me as I gazed at Hubbard Glacier, a photo of which I’ve put just to the right. The thing is, that small line of blue-white at the bottom? That’s the glacier. And it rises 350 feet above the sea! (City dwellers, think of a 30-story building.)
This information comes via the National Park Service, along with other impossible facts. The glacier is actually 600 feet high, but 250 feet of it are below the water. The visible face is the terminus of a 7-mile wide river of ice that flows for 76 miles. (Yes, flows. Ice in Alaska does that.) By the time the ice reaches the end it’s some 450 years old.The ice is constantly breaking off (“calving”), creating icebergs, which the sea gradually breaks up into smaller pieces of ice that litter the surrounding water for miles. The other contradiction is the amount of greenery right next to all this frozenness. Much of Alaska, I would learn the next day, is actually a rainforest, with the ice merely punctuating vibrant and verdant woodlands.
Fog and icebergs prevented us from approaching Hubbard Glacier too closely, but even so, I managed to take a few pictures. It would have been worth traveling to Alaska just to see this beautiful array of white snow, blue ice, and green trees.
Unless you’ve been on a cruise ship, you can’t imagine what it’s like.
I hadn’t, so in my ignorance I figured it was like a combination of a boat, a hotel, and a resort. And in a sense it was. But like so many things, the cruise ship is more than just the sum of its parts.
I boarded the boat in Seward, some 130 miles south of Anchorage. And, indeed, on board I found 13 stories, which they call “decks,” rooms (“staterooms”), four dining rooms, two pools, banks of elevators, and so on.
But once we set sail (with no sails), I realized that the magic was in the juxtaposition of the boat and Alaska. Whether majestic, peaceful, or quirky, the environment was always changing. One day there’d be ice water (literally — water with thousands of pieces of ice) out my large window, the next day a mountain. Put those mountains behind an outdoor pool with two hot tubs and a bar, and the scene was positively surreal.
So even though I was mostly looking forward to our land excursions, it didn’t take long before I decided that a retreat center floating by Alaska’s natural beauty is a fine place to spend a bit of time.
And things were only going to get better.
Further than you think. And much bigger than it seems.
Also really bright, at least in June.
I left New York on a 6:00am flight (Delta, of course) to Anchorage via Minneapolis/St. Paul. Because I had to meet some people on the way to the airport, that meant waking up at 3:00am. So I’d been awake for six hours when I landed in MSP, and for seven hours when I boarded the 9:00am flight to Anchorage.
I’d been awake for over twelve hours when I landed in Anchorage, which is why I was so surprised to hear the greeting “good morning.” It was just a little before noon, local time.Though part of the U.S., Anchorage is like nothing else. Even the approach via plane looks different. Lots of destinations boast snow-topped mountains, even in the summer, but here they rise majestically from the water and stretch impossibly to the horizon. It’s like the gateway to the end of the world, or, as I would later learn, the beginning.
My first task, appropriately, was survival: food and shelter. A taxi to my hotel (The Captain Hook — highly recommended) took care of both.
Fed and rested, I set out to explore. The downtown area is small, and I didn’t have the energy to venture too far away, so I decided to devote my time to buying gifts. The Alaska Native Arts Foundation didn’t have what I wanted, and my other recommendation, the Two Spirits Gallery, was closed.
That’s how I stumbled upon the “One People One World” gallery. I had, in fact, passed by it earlier, foolishly dismissing it because of its unorthodox appearance. This time I looked more closely, and started talking to the proprietor, Mr. Trevor Rennie. What a treat!I spent nearly two hours with Trevor, learning about Alaskan art and native artists, talking about Anchorage, and ultimately buying a few gifts, which Trevor agreed to put in the mail to me. If you’re in Anchorage, stop by. Really.
Exhausted and borderline delirious, I returned to the hotel and relaxed before an 8:30pm dinner.On my way to my room at 9:45pm, I snapped a picture of Anchorage. Lighting wasn’t a problem. It hadn’t even begun to get dark.
The next day I would travel 130 miles to Seward.
IN ADDITION to writing and traveling the world lecturing about his books, Hoffman has also directed a dance troupe, taught darkroom technique, and explored Patagonia on horseback. He lives just north of New York City.
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