July 24, 2011

This morning Meshak picked us up at the backpackers wearing a winter coat. It is about 60 degrees and sunny here, but everyone is bundled up and talking about how cold it is outside.  

Meshak is Stetswana, and fluent all of the eleven languages spoken in this country. Since today was Sunday, Meshak was missing church, but he wore his Zionist star to mark the day. His whole face lit up when he talked about his congregation, and I found myself wishing I could attend a Sunday service; it seems to be two hours of singing, dancing, and jumping. While driving out of Johannesburg, we saw hundreds of people walking to church, some of them wearing tire treads on their feet, many in brightly colored shawls. Meshak explained that the shoes are specifically for Sunday services, as the people do so much dancing that their regular shoes would wear out after only a couple of months. Worship is fun here, and filled with song. I'm so used to worship being solemn. Honestly, it makes much more sense to me to pray through dance. 

We drove through the low and golden vegetation on long dusty roads, the mining deposits high on the horizon. Most of the people we saw in cars were white, while all of the people walking alongside the highway were black. Though Johannesburg actually has a burgeoning black middle class, the outlying areas are very poor. People either walk very long distances to school, work, or church, or take "black taxis," which are minivans crammed full of people. The black taxis follow various circular routes, and the different taxi drivers have tenuous agreements regarding the division of service. Apparently, much blood has been shed in these taxi turf wars. 

After about an hour's drive, we arrived at an elephant sanctuary, the home of five orphaned African elephants. One of the educators at the sanctuary was named Simba. It was very, very hard to refrain singing "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" while walking next to him. 

The group of about fifteen people walked through the bush to the "classroom," a series of benches set up in front of two large elephant skulls and a few posters of elephant anatomy. Did you know that an elephant's brain is three times bigger than a human brain, and that much of this additional space is devoted to memory? Did you know that one of an elephant's tusks is usually shorter than the other, because she is either a righty or a lefty? Did you know that an elephant's gestation period is twenty-two months? Well now you do!

The tour then moved to the edge of the enclosure, where we fed three of the elephants by dumping food in their trunks. An elephant's trunk is a nose and also a rather preposterously agile and articulated appendage, which is kind of a hysterical combination. They grabbed the food from my hand (with their noses), and then tossed the food into their mouths (with their noses). Then, they picked up dirt from the ground (with their noses) and tossed it over their backs to keep the bugs off. Oh, and they were also breathing (with their noses).

When I fed the elephants, my hands came away covered with dirt and elephant snot, which was kind of awesome. 

Eventually we were allowed to enter the enclosure and greet the elephants, one-by-one, under the close supervision of the handlers. I touched Themba's trunk and his cheek and his side and his leg and his foot and his tail. Themba's skin was warm and dry and tough, and he gave me a kiss (by putting his trunk on my cheek and sucking in... I got a big wet hickey from an elephant.) Every once in a while while petting him, Themba would shift his weight, and I would automatically take a big step away... Interesting how *very strong* survival instincts take over when you are faced with something that could squash you like a bug. (Incidentally, if you ever find yourself being attacked by an elephant, don't run or try to climb a tree, as the elephant can easily overtake you or just rip out the tree you are inhabiting. Instead, take off a piece of your clothing and toss it away from yourself... Elephants are largely guided by sense of smell, so this may distract him long enough for you to get away... Just FYI.)

We then got to walk side-by-side with the elephants, trunk in hand. I walked with Kumba, who held my hand with the tip of her trunk as we slowly walked in a big circle. The whole experience was a little unsentimental ("OK, now touch Themba here and here and here and now smile for a picture and now give Themba your hand and now walk and follow that path," kind of like an elephant- tourist assembly line), but there is no doubt that it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I tried to send as much loving energy as I could to the elephants when I got to interact with them, and to thank them for the experience with an open heart. 

After the tour, we had lunch on a large deck and watched the elephants eat their lunch as well, before we drove back to Johannesburg, by way of a very large African craft market. This was a fun experience, though also a bit overwhelming. Every stall's owner insisted on shaking my hand and showing me his wares and buy something Sister help me out I made this myself oh you would look so pretty in this Sister what are you liking Sister nopressure nopressure no pressure you need to take this I can see how much you like it my name is Jeffrey and this is how I support my family I like your hat would you like to trade hats with me here take this wood carving it is practically a gift you will get it for next to nothing Sister nopressure here buy one of each." We were at the market for about a half an hour, and I don't think I got past the fifth or sixth stall. Don't get me wrong, I definitely acknowledge that I lead a far more privileged life than the sellers at the market, but I definitely got the feeling that everyone assumed I had an endless supply of money, and they wanted to be the ones to get some of it. In exasperation, I told one man that I had no more money to spend, because I am an actor. He replied, "Oh you're in the movies you can afford this only 120 rands Sister I made if myself."

 We took a flight to Cape Town this evening. We are spending the next three nights with Stephen, a South African friend from Buck's Rock who has an amazing little flat at the foot of Table Mountain. We will watch the glittering lights of the city tonight, and awake to find how it all looks in the sunshine tomorrow.