Monday, November 22, 2010

Nature proves you can step in the same river twice

There's the old saying that you cannot step in the same river twice. It’s credited to Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher who lived from 540 BC to 480 BC and the full quote is: “You could not step twice into the same river; for other waters are ever flowing on to you.”

Meaning, of course, among many other explanations, that you can’t try and retrieve or recover the past – the current has flowed on, there is another sense at play, you are a different person, you cannot grab at the intangible, at what has been and is over.

I thought so, too. Recreated experiences fall flat and yet, I think, after several experiences this year, that you can succeed in nabbing back a bit of the past, and making sense of what has been.

The experience will be different, you look on with older eyes, perhaps less naive, and you must make peace with that. For you can step in the same river twice, and sometimes the experience is ultimately satisfying. I attended a 20-year school reunion earlier this year – and found that while we had all moved on, a different sort of connection was achieved and ultimately cemented.

A few weeks ago, I returned to Utopia. I first went there at the age of eight with a large crowd of adults and children. Set within the mountains of the Magaliesberg, there are more than 100 self-catering, rustic A-frame chalets dotted around the wild nature reserve.

A river runs through it, you can hike the nearby mountains, swim in the pool, play tennis near the clubhouse. The name Utopia is aptly chosen – it’s an idyll. And never more so than for an eight-year-old child running wild, swimming the river that’s flanked by dusty pink and golden rocks.

I’ve never forgotten my time there, through all the years and subsequent travels to other places and other continents, although I did not consciously plan to return.

But a few years ago I was asked to write a short story for an anthology, and the place came back in my imagination. It had been too long – the story didn’t gel, memory really had dimmed the tarnish and the details – but the seed had been born.

I had to go back. Instead I went overseas a handful of times, travelled around the country, and always the memory of Utopia remained, I even Googled it a few times.

But the idea had taken root and one day I was explaining this place called Utopia to a friend, telling her all about it. She interjected – she knew the place well and had been going since a decade before. She had bought one of the units with her husband.

A hushed silence followed this statement. A plan was born.

Weeks later, we made our way to Utopia for a weekend. As soon as we drove through he gates and I looked at those strange, almost eerie looking -frame homes, most constructed of stone mined from the area, and topped with charcoal wigs of hatch, I remembered. Entering her unit, the place simple in its usticity, views of mountain, bush, trees, I remembered.

We scrambled down to the river to swim after lunch, and there was the same road, undulating slabs of rocks, the deeply flowing river, the natural cool of water, darkly inviting. I remembered. I had stepped back in time in some strange way.

I had managed to step in the same river twice.

Yes, it was 30 years later, but memory had sustained me, vague and shimmery as it was. I really had stepped back into the same river twice, and found the same source, the same strength. There are times when you experience nature in ways that you can’t quite describe. Going to Death Valley in the US produced a similar feeling in me: a sense of awe, a sense of homecoming, a stillness, and also a deep longing to return to that place of parched landscape and salt flats.

Similarly, sitting on the rocks at Utopia, taking photographs of the clouds moving across the water, the green reeds shimmering hazily in reflection, I’d stepped back, and yet also forward.

(Published in The Sunday Independent, November 21, 2010)

Elephant back at Camp Jabulani

We’re walking across a plain at night. I’m in a group consisting of 16 elephants and just as many people, visitors as well as elephant handlers. It has just grown dark and we’re ambling at an elephant’s pace through the veld at Kapama Game Reserve, which edges the Kruger National Park.

We’ve just passed a lion sitting majestically in the plain, watching as this procession of grown elephants, baby elephants and humans winds through the bush.

Flashlights illuminate the way, flicking constantly from side to side. Above us the Milky Way comes into view, obscured by the bright, nearly full moon.

There’s a canopy of stars above, almost like a blanket covering us. We move on, beyond the lion, the ground sloping gently upward. Ahead we see a herd of wildebeest, moving through the veld, ignoring us. On elephant-back we’re part of the veld, part of the world of the animals, part of something ancient, timeless and even nameless.

As we move through the night, on the way to the elephants’ stalls, I feel I’m lost in time, as if I’ve gone back thousands of years, before cars and technology, noise and light, rush and movement.

Back to the way humans used to move across the earth, on the backs of animals, on elephant, horses, mules, donkeys, following the slow rhythmic movement of the animals, going as fast as hooves would allow. There’s no rushing the process.

We will arrive when we arrive. It’s a slow procession across the land, walking and silence, almost a meditation. I’m reminded of Robyn Davidson’s excellent travel book Desert Plains, published in the mid-1990s, in which she travelled with the Rabari, a tribe of Indian nomads, riding camels as she had in her bestselling Tracks. Using an ancient form of transport – a slow form that guides and shapes your days in a way that is no longer available to us in everyday life.

Tonight I’m riding the female elephant Tokwe, named, like some of the elephants at Camp Jabulani, after rivers in Zimbabwe. She moves slowly, slower than the bull Mupfuri that I rode last night on a sunset ride.

As we move, I get a sense that she’s tired, somehow. Her baby, the male Limpopo, stays close by, occasionally breaking away to tear at branches to chomp along the way.

In fact, the noise of the elephants, tusks outstretched, reaching out to tear a tasty morsel of tree or branch, along with the quiet clumping along the path and the occasional murmuring of the other elephant riders, are the only sounds that accompany us as we move through the plain.

Arriving at the elephants’ stalls, we dismount, one by one. By riding elephants tonight, we have gone back centuries, we’ve reconnected with something we hadn’t been aware of previously.

We’re each of us moved in different ways. We exclaim excitedly as we dismount, “awesome, amazing, unbelievable” – the quotidian adjectives don’t do the experience justice, but they are all we have.

Once the elephants have been led into their stalls, Ian Crichton, the elephant master, takes us through and explains the differences in their personalities.

Fishun sports a big scar. He was treated by vets using the ramp that we use to mount the elephants. As such he’s developed a phobia about going near the mounts, and cannot be ridden.

“So, he’s just a freeloader, doing his own thing,” jokes Crichton affectionately.

We’re led to Tokwe, the elephant I rode tonight, which, Crichton says, is a type of mother aunt to the other baby elephants, which often cluster around her during the day.

Most heartbreaking is the plight of Kumbura, an orphaned elephant, which has no mother, and when she needs protection, none of the other elephants shelter her as she doesn’t “belong” to them. Instead she takes refuge under the powerful presence of Jabulani, after whom the camp is named. We cluck sympathetically.

Other elephants don’t like being touched and as Crichton leads us outside, I’m struck by the differences in personalities and temperaments between the 17.

Then there’s Joe, absent Joe, who took off one day, deciding that he didn’t want to live in the stalls, and left to join a wild herd. The camp owners have respected his decision.

Camp Jabulani is all about the elephants, and respecting their needs and wishes, explains Crichton. The camp itself, a luxury lodge, is named after one of the elephants, Jabulani, and the herd at the camp were saved from death.

Jabulani was the first to be rescued, in 1997. As a four-month-old, Jabulani arrived at the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre. Dehydrated, he’d been abandoned by his herd and been found stuck in the mud of a silt dam. It took a year for him to recover.

In 2002 the Roode family, who have been involved in conservation since the 1970s, heard about the plight of 12 elephants in Zimbabwe. The owners of the farm in that country were having their land expropriated and the elephants faced death. The Roodes set off for Zimbabwe, returning with the elephants, and amazingly Jabulani was immediately accepted by this new herd.

Camp Jabulani was created with the aim of supporting these elephants and offering the opportunity of interacting with them as well as riding them.

Says Adine Roode, managing director at Camp Jabulani: “Should I have had a choice and if it was easy to release domesticated elephants into the wild, it would have been an option to release these elephants, but unfortunately it was not possible. We were able to save the animals from a gruesome death and at this stage we provide safaris to sustain the operation by giving guests an experience.”

On the safety of the rides, she says: “The time of the day doesn’t really have an effect on the safety aspect for the elephant-back safaris. I’m more of the opinion that the experience of the handlers is of paramount importance.”

The handlers came with the elephants from Zimbabwe and have 30-plus years of experience. Each elephant has its own personality and the handlers have to interpret their moods.

“Elephants have a lot of similarities to humans and their emotions must be respected and understood by us. The amount of time the handlers spend with the elephants is vital as this creates a bond and trust between the two,” says Roode.

“Our senior grooms are on th e ground overseeing proceedings and have a wonderful relationship with the elephants. We would not be able to continue such an operation without these handlers.”

We leave the elephants in their stalls for the night, heading back to the lodge for supper. Although it has been a full day, we remain energised, the remarkable stories of the elephants, of their distinct differences, their rescue and the creation of a camp remain with us as we sit down for dinner.

This will be our last interaction with the elephants before we go home the following morning.

An equally remarkable sunset elephant-back ride had been our introduction to the rides, starting in the golden light of late afternoon the previous day.

We also pay a visit to the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre where Jabulani had first been brought as a dehydrated baby. The centre, in Hoedspruit, rehabilitates and cares for injured and orphaned animals and is dedicated to the survival of rare and endangered species, especially the cheetah.

On arrival we watch a DVD which explains the work of the centre.

At the curio shop I buy a paw print cr eated by a playful cub. A drive around the centre introduces us to wild dogs yipping excitedly for their food, allows us to stroke an ambassador cheetah and park expectantly in front of the “vulture restaurant”, where a rotting smell of old meat and bones comes from the pit. This is a concrete rectangle filled with old as well as new bones, a veritable orgy of death.

The vultures gather, the student volunteers drive up and tip kilos of meat in and the vultures roar in, a spectacular, swirling mass of feathers in browns, greys, beiges, a whirlpool of birds feasting.

On the last morning before going back to Joburg – a five-hour drive – we opt for a quick, lateish game drive.

Our last, spectacular sighting is of a leopard perched high in a tree, camouflaged by the golden yellow colours of the leaves. It is a rare, elusive, a prize sighting.

Next to our game-drive vehicle, a large lion lies sleeping in the sun. Our ranger surmises that the lion would have chased the far smaller leopard up the tree as both big cats compete for food, resources and, ultimately, territory. It may be a long wait before the leopard can come down.

The sun climbs high in the sky, it gets hotter, and we take off in a roar of petrol, noise, urgency and haste.

We drive off but the ending to this story hasn’t yet been told, it’s still somewhere out there in the future, unknown.

(Published in The Sunday Independent, November 21)

Thursday, November 18, 2010

At the launch of Ingrid Andersen's Peace Work and Phillippa Yaa de Villiers' The Everyday Wife at Love Books, Melville

Eyes wide open: Gay in Jerusalem

Sset within the cloistered community of an Orthodox Jewish world in Jerusalem, Eyes Wide Open is a quietly tragic film about the devastating effect of homosexuality on the lives of its two Jewish protagonists.

Aaron Fleishman (Zohar Shtrauss) takes over the family kosher butchery after his father dies. A married father of four, he’s a sombre, silent man who spends his mostly solitary days in the grim-looking shop. It’s a grimy place, washed over in cold fluorescent light which throws an unforgiving glow over all.

Life changes irrevocably when a young Yeshiva student, Ezri (Ran Danker), enters the butchery and becomes his assistant. The two are immediately drawn towards each other – and the concept and its consequences is a frightening one, especially for Aaron, who is married and a pillar of his community.

Ezri, it could be said, is just passing through. There will be consequences for him too, but they are lesser, he can move on.

Love plays itself out in this cold, harsh-looking shop, taking place in a room above with its sagging bed and peeling ceiling, or in the depths of the vast fridge below. With dead meat hanging from hooks in the ceiling, you can just about smell the decay of the carcasses and it’s not hard to make the leap to the metaphor filmmaker Haim Tabakman implies in this film.

There’s stagnation and death, and seemingly no solution, or proper outlet, for the love the two men feel for each other.

In an interview, Tabakman has commented that “religious people do not consider homosexuality a sin, it just does not exist. So how can you deal with it if somewhere it is written that it does not exist? To them, it’s just an evil urge. Being homosexual is like a disease that you can easily get rid of. It cannot be part of a human being’s essence.”

Eyes Wide Open takes us into the very heart of the Orthodox community, a world of conformity and compromise. From the butchery, to the small narrow streets of old Jerusalem, to the stifling confines of a flat that is too small to contain the family and this momentous series of events.

We watch as Aaron and his wife Rivka (Tinkerbel) eat a plain supper together, the children in bed, the silence lying in shafts between them. It’s clear that Rivka knows only too well what’s taking place between the two men.

When Aaron and Ezri go off to a small dam, finally away from prying eyes, swimming together, there’s a sense of a breath of fresh air, of freedom, albeit fettered and brief. While the butchery is an unforgiving cold place, the dam is bathed in a stark, azure beauty.

Secrets will out in this small, tightly-knit world, and the community is outraged. Things cannot continue as they are. Aaron and his lover Ezri will be forced to choose.

Watching the choices being made is harrowing – the film keeps you on a knife’s edge and is a gripping piece of narration. This is a bold, compelling film which casts a hard, judgmental light on the world of orthodox Jews, and its truths make for unsettling viewing.

(Published in The Sunday Independent, Novemver 14 2010)

Monday, November 1, 2010

Writing in pictures brings daily life into crisp focus - Tanya Farber

Local award-winning writer Arja Salafranca has been brewing a collection of short stories over the years, and recently it came together in its collected form as The Thin Line. Luckily for the reader, not an ounce of pretentiousness got thrown into the pot along the way, and the result is a subtle yet gently haunting literary experience.

Salafranca's style in this collection is best described as cinematic. Each story plays out like a camera lingering on minutiae which, brought together, tell the reader a great deal about the characters and situations which form the subject matter.

"The earliest story was written when I was 18," she says, "and though I have written and published a number of short stories since then, there has been a lot of culling and pruning of my material."

The most striking - and refreshing - aspect of this collection is that it bears no trace of the albatross that many South African writers find tethered to their neck: the burden of our past, the issue of "representation", and the pitfalls of stereotyping and political correctness.

Salafranca casts all that aside in favour of an unashamed microcosmos of experiences. There is no attempt to be "definitively" South African.

"As a short story writer, I don't have a responsibility to show how awful society is or can be," she says. "But if someone changes how they think for having read it, then that is simply the beauty of writing."

She says local writers should never tell themselves that they need to send out a message. The mission, instead, is to move someone.

"If politics or a comment on society or the law comes into my stories, it is by the way," she explains.

And that is precisely why the collection makes for such thought-provoking reading: one is able to delve into the subtle detail of atmosphere, character and feeling without being bashed over the head with didactics.

Even in a story such as "A Car is a Weapon", Salafranca deals with the issue of fake drivers' licences, but at the heart of the story is the characters and the moral dilemmas that are thrown up, and Salafranca avoids lacing the text with her own opinion on the issue.

In terms of the process of her writing, she is often inspired by a photograph or an image in her mind. From there, the story develops a life of its own.

"When I start writing a story, I have an image in my mind. I usually know how it's going to end, but not how I'm going to get there."

Judging from the nature of each story, it appears that that image in her mind is usually the main character in clear focus, with a blurred background which slowly comes into sharp focus itself as the plot moves forward.

"The characters come through the story but it's not a conscious thing," she says.

In A Man Sits in a Johannesburg Park, for example, the story opens with a cinematic description of a man and his dog: "A man sits in a Johannesburg park on a late summer's afternoon. He releases the lead attached to his spaniel's collar and she bounds off to sniff trees and play near the river, perhaps the dog will even go for a swim again."

From here, the story gently rolls open to reveal a dilemma about emigration, and as this happens, the image of the man on the park bench acquires more meaning.This story, as well as the others, depict what Salafranca describes as the way in which we experience other people in our daily lives.

"You arrive in someone's daily life as you meet them for coffee, for example," she says, "and then after an hour or two you are apart and encountering someone else. You don't first come across their background information. You meet them during a slice of your life and it is a slice of their life too."

In terms of the publishing process, she says it is challenging for an unknown writer to get a collection of short stories published as there is "an assumption that you should get your novel out first".

But, she says, when booksellers say that short stories do not sell, the downfall is in the marketing.

"We have to throw short stories at the public the way we threw South African literature at the public a short while back. We were shown how great it was to read about ourselves."

She says she has heard it takes most people approximately three weeks to finish a book.

"Why not spend those three weeks with a short story book?" she asks, adding that in our busy lives, there is the advantage of dipping in and out of different stories.

If you agree with that philosophy, or are tempted to do so, The Thin Line is an essential read.

Published in The Star and Pretoria News, October 28 2010.