Archives For South Africa

stadium trio

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After two weeks on the road, we got a respite from hotels for a few days, staying with a friend in Atlanta. It was nice to have some home-cooked meals. Wait… did Annie cook? No. Hahaha. But it was nice to hang out with an old friend and “lil’ sis” again after many years. (Yet we forgot to get a photo of us — biggest regret of the trip!)

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Biltong Bar in Atlanta

Calling biltong “beef jerky” doesn’t do it justice. Biltong Bar is great!

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The first morning Mtuseni and I went into swanky Buckhead to pick up his new glasses — and stumbled on a biltong place! I’m not a huge meat fan, and American beef jerky is like old shoe leather. But biltong — South African beef jerky — is thick and meaty and succulent. I first tried it on my trip to SA in 2012 and have been craving it since.

We sat at the bar and got a biltong platter with chutneys. Mtuseni was in heaven — and raved about how biltong is so much better than jerky (though he always eats jerky when he’s in the US.) Cool vibe, great decor, enticing menu — we need a Biltong Bar in Boston! 

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biltong in

Another taste of South African home in America — biltong and chutney!

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Mtuseni found a kindred spirit in Atlanta in my friend’s son: another soccer fanatic! They figured out we could get tickets to an Atlanta United game — so suddenly we were on a MARTA train to the stadium.

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ballers

These guys are both pretty deft with handling a soccer ball. I’ve got video to prove it!

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The atmosphere outside was lively. Mtuseni and Nolan would have happily kicked a soccer ball around all night! The stadium was a sellout… and the facility is impressive with the retractable roof. 

Once the match started the guys were all in; I surfed my phone. I don’t get soccer. The ball bounces around the field like pinball — and everyone goes crazy if it even approaches the goal. But any pro sporting event is a pretty cool production, and Mtuseni was thrilled.

Oh, and Atlanta won. 

stadium pair

pair capitol back

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On our second day in DC, we hit a couple of the Smithsonians: the Museum of Natural History and the National Air and Space Museum. I would have liked to see some art, but Mtuseni isn’t much for colors on canvas.

The natural history museum was okay. It felt a bit dated after the fresh, engaging exhibits of the African American Museum. The room of diamonds and other gems is pretty amazing.

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elephant in Natural History Museum Wasington DC

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Mtuseni watched a talk about genetics, spit into a test tube, and swirls of his DNA appeared. He poured it into a tiny vial and wore it on a bracelet. That was pretty cool.

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vial

Mtuseni’s DNA comes alive. Science!

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One milestone was set today: Mtuseni’s worst meal on the entire trip. Oddly, the Washington Mall area seems to lack restaurants. We didn’t want to walk to find one in the blazing heat, so we got lunch at a park service kiosk. Mtuseni got some kind of hot sandwich wrapped in paper foil…probably on the shelf for a week. I warned him, but he didn’t listen. It was awful, and he can eat just about anything. Whenever we discussed our meals on the trip, he griped about that sandwich! Hahaha.

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Planes and rockets in lobby of National Air and Space Museum, Washington DC

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The air and space museum was a blast! For Mtuseni, a typical guy who is all about cars and sports, the planes and rockets and space ships fit the bill. For me — a closet space nerd (actual science, no Star Trek/Star Wars crap) — it was super cool. And it was neat to show Mtuseni the Apollo ships that my father worked on in the 1960s. It was a fun afternoon, like two boys in a candy store. 

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Missiles in lobby of National Air and Space Museum, Washington DC

Mtuseni joked that all the missiles were live and that Trump was going to push the button one day. Hmmm… nothing would surprise me at this point.

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Model of Wright Brothers plane in National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC

The Wright Brothers’ first plane… flown by a model, not a person!

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mtu wright bros plane

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Neil Armstrong space suit

Neil Armstrong’s space suit. Mtuseni loved this museum. Me too! 

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We took the Metro back to Arlington and looked for someplace to have dinner. We turned a corner and saw Nando’s — a popular chain in South Africa! Mtuseni was thrilled to have a little taste of home.

Nando’s is so damn good… I’m like a super-fan. I looked later into buying a franchise for Boston. (Waaay out of my price range!) The peri-peri sauce — made from African bird’s eye chili — is crazy hot. (Mtuseni warned me to go with the medium, but I had no complaints.)

The meal more than made up for his horrible sandwich at lunch… and we walked back to our hotel full and happy and tired.

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Nando's in Arlington, Virginia

Nando’s? In America? We need some in Boston please!

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nandos menu

A familiar feeling of home in South Africa… 8,000 miles away.

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Nando's in Arlington, Virginia

Book Preface

April 22, 2019 — Leave a comment

DSCN0303

This preface opens the sample chapters for Long-Distance Dad.
Full book proposal available for agent review.

We sat in the warm morning sun of a Johannesburg sidewalk cafe. I looked across the table at this kid, a young man really, who was a complete stranger not so long ago.

I’d been looking forward to this trip for weeks. We both had been. But now something felt off. The person I had journeyed to see for the first time, who greeted me with a high-wattage grin, had become increasingly quiet, almost sullen.

It had been a week filled with new experiences. For me: the first time south of the equator, first time in Africa, first time seeing abject poverty up close. For him: the first time on a plane, seeing the ocean, eating in restaurants.

I watched my companion devour his breakfast, and knew it would be a long time before he had a good healthy meal again. I fretted about what he would have for dinner that night.

His resolute silence made me uncomfortable. Old insecurities were triggered. Sparks of resentment flashed. I felt confused, concerned, and a little sad. In a short while, I would get on a plane for the 17-hour flight home. Our conversations would go back to texting, emails, and occasional phone calls. I had to know what was going on; I didn’t want this tension hanging over us from afar.

Direct, emotional conversations are not my strength. Nobody in the history of my family has ever engaged in one. But I had already stretched myself in a hundred different ways for him. With the slightest quiver in my voice, I haltingly plowed ahead.

“So… buddy. I want to talk about something. You’ve been so quiet the last few days. It makes me feel bad. Are you upset about something? Do you not like me? This was supposed to be a great trip. I thought you were having a good time. What’s the matter?”

His jaw worked as he thought of a response. His posture was usually so proud and poised, but now he seemed shrunken, his head down. I knew that he didn’t like to be put on the spot. And he knew the mumbling grunts I’d been hearing lately weren’t going to cut it.

He stole a glance at me and quickly looked back his plate. “Sometimes I fear you.”

I was shocked. Nobody in the world meant more to me. “What!? You know how much I care for you. Why would you think that?”

“Well…” His eyes stayed focused on the table. “I stay quiet because I’m afraid I might say the wrong thing and anger you. And then you’ll leave me, and my life would crumble.”

My breath caught. Tears welled. The immense significance of this relationship hit me full on. At that moment, I truly understood.

The Thin Wire

April 6, 2019 — Leave a comment

Mtuseni huhI’ve always been enthralled with Mtuseni’s use of spoken language. I don’t know if it’s just him or is distinct to South African English. Maybe it reflects a way of thinking and translating from his native Zulu language. But in regular conversation his word choice can feel downright poetic.

I remember years ago when he was in school and was having money problems — bigger than the usual money problems he copes with. It was one of the rare times he specifically asked me for more money, in addition to the monthly allowance I gave him. In making his case, he said he was “living on a thin wire.” The phrase evoked a striking image, and was an effective way to communicate his predicament.

 

I was reminded of this image when I woke up the other day and saw his WhatsApp status on my phone:

Meter Mate status crop

Mtuseni works at Meter Mate in a dead end, low paying admin job. He hates it. He was set to have his monthly review this past week. He’d gotten several written warnings about being late for work recently. He told me that Joburg traffic was getting worse, and the rolling blackouts from the failing electric utility adds to the gridlock when traffic signals are out. After three years in the job, leaving home at 6 a.m. to make it to work on time at 8:30, suddenly he’s being hounded for being a few minutes late.

The company treats employees like children. Mtuseni has told me stories of things that management does there that would never be allowed in the US. But in an economy where people are desperate for work, you put your head down and just hope you can hold on to your crappy job. And Mtuseni finally realizes that he’s disposable; there are fifty people who would take his job in a heartbeat, and the company knows it.

Seeing his status message I immediately thought, “Uh-oh.” Surely he’d been fired. My mind went into solution mode… thinking about work alternatives and connections and how I could cover his lost salary for however long it might take him to find another job, which could be months.

And I realized then how much I live on a thin wire with Mtuseni. There’s always something to worry about with him… either a long-term risk in the background or more pressing crises that pop up on a regular basis. Something that can knock him — knock us — off the wire into the abyss.

It’s a hard way to live. It wears on me sometimes, but I only deal with it secondhand; I’m far removed from any direct consequences. I’ve seen how the struggle has affected Mtuseni; his youthful idealism has eroded into a sense of dark resignation.

I’m working on some big plans to relight that magical spark he once had. Mtuseni has always wanted more, has had higher aspirations. Like me, he wants his life to have meaning and a positive impact; that’s something I’ve loved about him from the start.

But life in poverty tends to be lived in shorter time frames, with survival as the goal.

Back to this latest episode on the high wire…

I texted Mtuseni and asked what happened at Meter Mate. There was no response for over an hour, and in that time the wheels turned in my head, thinking of how to help him find a new job, how to make sure he had enough money. Worrying about how his lost income would impact the family, and the blowback from his overstressed mom who blames everything on him. Figuring out how to put a positive spin on the situation so Mtuseni wouldn’t slide into an even darker place.

Then I heard the little WhatsApp chime and thought, “Okay, this is it.” Turns out his boss had died suddenly the night before. That’s what created the “saddest day at Meter Mate.”

His job — at least for now — was safe. But there’s no real sense of relief. Mtuseni’s still walking on the thin wire. And the wind is blowing in every direction. And as always, I’ll be there to catch him.