2014

St. James Tide Pool

Kai Staats: St. James Tide Pool A day of good intentions started at 7 AM. After five days of editing the LIGO film, hour after hour sitting on my back side, it seems a day of simply re-organising, of catching up was in order. I sorted hundreds of photos and some documents, conducted a full computer backup (minor backups conducted every Friday evening), and then ventured to the St. James Bay tide pool.

One of the perks of living here is a two minutes walk to the waves, surf board under arm. But on those days which are overcome by wind (November through January), the St. James Bay tide pool offers a respit, warm(er) water, and the company of hundreds of families from across this part of Cape Town.

After lunch, I walked the fifteen minutes to the tide pool for a swim. I asked a local stranger to watch my bag which contained only my shoes, towel, and shirt. It is simply too easy for things to be stolen here.

I swam across the pool and pulled myself up onto the wall. I sat next to a man who introduced himself, our backs to the ocean and feet dangling in the protected water. At just one and a half meters deep, I was astounded by the dives the local kids were performing. I would have cracked my head open if I were to have attempted these–but they have a trick, a kind of ‘spring’ in their upper body which releases when they hit the water. No matter how high they jump or how far they twist, roll, and dive, they enter the water nearly flat, compressed, and then open on impact. This keeps them from hitting bottom. The guy who was watching my bag promised to teach me when I returned.

One of my classmates from Madagascar swam up while we were talking. I had seen her coming, but did not recognise her with only her backside to the sky. I joked, “Not to hard to find the white guy in this crowd, huh?” She laughed. The man to my right noted, “It’s funny, eh, how each beach, each place has a majority. This is where the coloured and some blacks go. But just over there, at the next bay, the beach is almost all white. And back at Muizenberg, you have your white tourists and a mixture of locals. But it is a good mix, there.”

He was right. It’s strange how that happens. Comfort in the familiar.

We discussed comfort zones, independent of colour. I commented on how much personal space I grew up with, never in a crowd but for certain occassions. He laughed, “In Africa, you are always near someone. You are always in a crowd. If you leave, you miss the energy and want to come back.” The same could be said for all big cities, for Africa has many small towns and villages with open space. Yet here, people are more … visible, not indoors nearly as much. I told him about the fist time I returned from Kenya to Colorado. I felt I had come upon the scene of a nuclear holocaust sci-fi, everyone hiding or obliterated.

Indeed, there were hundreds of individuals, yet there were maybe a handful of whites, only two of us in the water. It’s part of what I love about living here. My comforts have changed considerably, what I find normal was, perhaps, even uncomfortable at one time.

Yet yesterday was the opposite, for among the thousands who attended the “Hot Water” concert (which was astounding), the number of black people could be counted on two hands.

Time to edit, edit, edit … LIGO awaits.

By | 2017-04-10T11:17:35+00:00 December 29th, 2014|2014, Out of Africa|Comments Off on St. James Tide Pool

Homeless in Cape Town, part V

Growing up as the son of a Lutheran pastor meant that our family was integrally involved in the Christmas season. There was planning and orchestration in preparation for the celebration. All of us played a part, while my father’s days were spent mostly away from home for the week preceding.

Being a part of the team that made it all work carried a sense of pride, in part because it was a church organisation, in part the theatrics themselves were not unlike a stage production.

When I was but 3 or 4 years of age my father built a wood and cardboard extension on the back of my tricycle. I rode this through the makeshift isles of folding chairs in Springfield, South Dakota, where my parents managed a Christian dormitory. I first distributed then collected the hymnals each Sunday morning.

More than a dozen years later, at Faith Lutheran in Phoenix, Arizona, I ran the lights, making certain they were dimmed at the right time for the candle light service. The pipe organ was one of the finest in Arizona, the fruition of my father’s effort to have it shipped, rebuilt, and installed. Often, I wished the Christmas service was without accompanying vocals, for the pipe organ alone was enough to invoke the desired emotion.

Christmas Eve was a busy time for us, but most of all for my father. He was at the church all day, preparing for the service while my mother, brother and I prepared food for dinner. Our tradition for this occasion evolved to include manicotti, a zesty, frozen fruit salad, spiced green beans, and a light desert. The aroma of apple cider spiced with cinnamon sticks, cloves, and an orange slice permeated the entire house.

We joined my father at church for the first service, then came home and waited for his later arrival to eat dinner. Back to church for the second, midnight service. Finally, home for opening gifts into the early morning hours. 1:30 or 2:00 A.M., the only time I recall my parents staying up that long. Last night, I received a WhatsApp message from my mother at 12:30 am, her time. The tradition continues.

Even when one or more of us slept in the living room, as kids near our gifts or as visiting adults on the sofa, somehow, Santa managed to sneak into the living room and fill the stockings which hung from the 1800s pump organ.

With Thanks Giving and Christmas both, we always sat with guests, relatives, church members, or friends of friends who didn’t have a place to call home that year.

We often discussed the street population in Phoenix, and how we could assist those without a home. One year I served food at the shelter in down town Phoenix; years later in Denver Colorado. Each year I would suggest that we invite one or two of the homeless, total strangers easily found on a street corner our home. Each year the expressed concern was for the safety of our family, and of course, the potential drama.

As my father spent the better part of his career serving the homeless population (as all inner city pastors do), it was not for lack of desire nor effort, rather, our Christmas celebration was a time for family.

We did our best to keep it simple, quiet, and familiar. Some of my most fond memories are of those Christmas eves, both as a child and adult.

Last night, Christmas Eve, I hosted a dinner for nine friends here in Muizenberg, South Africa. It was a spontaneous gathering, and an eclectic mix of people.

Two from the States, one from Ethiopia, one from the African country of Benin, and five from South Africa. We gathered with only two days notice, quickly organising a menu which in the end was more food than planned and all quite tasty.

I baked three home-made pizzas, an apple crumble, and a dozen cinnamon rolls from the left-over pizza dough. Zoe helped prepare the pizza sauce, Zama the fruit salad. Gilad and Fran brought a chick pea salad and Sam, summer greens.

Four of us are student researchers, one a tutor, three working professionals, and two without a home, living on the mountain, just above Boyes drive. Combined, we speak at least ten languages with one individual fluent in five. The diversity of backgrounds generated a wonderful unfolding of stories.

As I had desired many times as a child, I invited relative strangers to my home. Just twenty four hours prior a fight had broken out between two car park attendants, one having taken the job of the other. I broke up the fight, physically carrying Eurica away from the man she was hitting.

No, that drama did not find its way into my home, nor our unique dinner.

We all told stories. Stories of our childhood, stories of where and how we grew up. Surely, there were difference from Chicago to Nebraska to Ethiopia and Benin. Each was unique, rich in the telling. But it was when Eurica spoke that we the room grew totally silent.

She grew up in a township of South Africa. She lived in constant fear of being attacked, of being raped. Her childhood was spent with the gangs, shooting guns as a past time. She said, “We didn’t know any better. We’d go out shooting at people. We didn’t expect to live long. There was no future. That’s all we knew.” She paused, then continued, “I don’t think it’s change much. It’s just about the same for them. I got out, praise the Lord, but my son, he’s getting involved with the gangs too.”

Mixed conversation slowly rose again. Two, three threads quietly entertained. Sam engaged Eurica and her friend for more stories. I baked cinnamon rolls while I imagined her childhood, growing up like that.

For me, it was perhaps the best Christmas holiday I had ever spent. It was, in many ways, an engagement of the holiday as intended, a celebration of diversity under one roof.

By | 2015-09-24T12:11:42+00:00 December 28th, 2014|2014, Out of Africa|Comments Off on Homeless in Cape Town, part V

Homeless in Cape Town, part IV

“Where do you sleep at night?” I asked.

“On a stoop,” he responded.

“Someone’s porch?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“Are you safe there?”

“Yes, I am safe. Thank you Lord,” he concluded.

Would you like to come over to my apartment, to take a shower. I am fixing dinner, and you can join me.”

He paused, shook his head, and then made direct eye contact with me for the first time, asking “Wow. Wow … Do you believe I need a shower?”

Realising I may have offended him, I laughed, saying, “You don’t smell bad, I just thought that–”

He cut me off, lowering his head again.

“The Lord said that we should be worry not for how we appear on the outside, but how we appear on the inside. Those who are clean, shiny, and washed may have minds that are thinking unclean thoughts. They think of steeling, of hurting, of sinful things, and yet, we believe they are clean.

I nodded.

The Rasta continued, “Thank you. Yes, thank you,” shaking his head, “But I choose to not come with you for I must remain true to the word of God. I must remain without these things, and clean on the inside.”

By | 2015-07-26T06:52:34+00:00 December 22nd, 2014|2014, Out of Africa|Comments Off on Homeless in Cape Town, part IV

Homeless in Cape Town, part III

I have a new friend. Her name is Eurica.

Eurica has been homeless for a nearly ten years, she says. She has two children cared for by a step-mother, one in his early twenties, tempted by the gangs in neighbourhood. As with all homeless whose stories I have received, she has family near-by, an aunt with a proper house in the next town Kalk Bay.

Eurica no longer sells her body. She is a ‘car-park girl’, making roughly $1.35 a day (500 SAR per month) helping people find parking, and then protecting their cars while they eat at local restaurants. She sleeps in the mountains, a half hour walk from the beach. The local law enforcement are encouraged to rob the homeless of what little they have, taking blankets, tents, beds–everything as a kind of punishment for sleeping on public land, on the mountain or beneath the train bridge.

She speaks of losing hope. She tries to remain humble. She feels her prayers to God are unanswered, that somehow, she it not trying hard enough for him to acknowledge. I am carefully guiding her to consider how she can better use her time, to learn skills and improve her English rather than read the Bible over and over again. She calls me Master, which I despise. It is a common saying here, I assume left-over from apartheid.

Tonight, I did her laundry. I washed, dried, and folded her white jeans with sparkles sewn into the pocket linings, her tank tops and jumpers. Her pajamas have pink hearts and the words “love” and “chocolate” printed over and over again. The washing machine was filled with grass and twigs when done. I delivered them back to her, warm, in a plastic bag with a roll of toilet paper, soap, and cotton swabs.

This was perhaps the single most important thing I have done since my arrival on this continent. Through that intimate interaction, through my serving her in that way, I was forced to realise that she is like all other women I know–wanting to feel feminine, wanting soft, comfortable clothes. Even as she sleeps in the open, on the mountain, she desires to be … human.

By | 2017-04-10T11:17:35+00:00 December 20th, 2014|2014, Out of Africa|Comments Off on Homeless in Cape Town, part III

The man in the seal suit

During my run this morning, I came across a dead seal rolled onto the beach by the waves. I touched it, to see if it was yet warm. But it was cool and slightly bloated. I recognized the opportunity to learn more about this animal, one I had never encountered this closely before.

I spread its front flippers and counted the fingers contained within the webbing. Five, just like mine, with what I believe are the same number of joints. Its rear flippers have toe nails. Not flat like ours, but tubular like a dog. Some just barely pressing through the skin, others nearly an inch in length.

The wave came in and rolled the seal higher than lower on the beach again. The seal was presented anew.

I bent the fingers at each joint, making a fist the size of my own. I was amazed at the similarities, the distance between knuckles nearly identical on the lower digits. Thin, strong bones suspended in a cape of black felt, cool to the touch in this inanimate form.

So very familiar. I half expected a small man to jump out from the suit.

The nose is so much like the snout of a dog, with stiff whiskers and familiar teeth. Large eyes left open when the life no longer occupied this creature, alone on the beach.

By | 2015-10-06T23:19:01+00:00 December 15th, 2014|2014|Comments Off on The man in the seal suit

Kruger National Park, a photo essay

Kai Staats: Kruger National Park, South Africa

zebra lion hippo giraffe elephant Kai Staats: Kruger National Park

The CHPC conference was this year hosted in the Kruger National Park, South Africa. It was a stark contrast in so many ways, as software engineers, technologists, and high performance computing specialists gathered to discuss the finer points of the current and future state of computers in the midst of South Africa’s largest national park.

Yet, the contrast was engaging. I rose at 4:00 am in order to venture into the park on a game drive or guided hike, returning in time for breakfast. While I find it difficult to rise at 6:00 some days here in Muizenberg, I looked forward to driving in the chilled morning air, the open vehicle invited wind against my face, onto my chest through my thin, fleece jacket.

The prospect of seeing animals I have only a few times before, or may never again, was ample motivation.

Kai Staats: Kruger National Park Personally, I find the elephants the most stunning. I could watch them all day, every day, and never grow wary. Of course, they are also one of the most dangerous. Incredibly smart, and highly protective of their young, Gilad and I experienced the very real threat of a young bull when he turned, squared his chest, and flared his ears as I brought our small car too close.

I quickly put the vehicle into reverse, and was able to ease the tension. A bead of cold sweat rolled down my neck, my hands shaking as I knew I had pushed too far, across his boundary.

A drive-through game park is at first consideration, an odd experience. One may ask why you would desire to spend days sitting in your car. Is this not similar to taking a golf cart through a zoo? While I prefer to be out on-foot (and this is an option, with a hired guide), there are certain benefits.

The animal population in parks such as Kruger in South Africa and Etosha in Namibia have grown-up for multiple generations in the presence of roads and vehicles. Because humans are not allowed outside those vehicles, most of the animals do not associate the vehicles with humans, and are relatively unafraid as every day their interaction is non-harmful. The chance of seeing elephants, zebra, hyaena, a great diversity of antelope, wildebeest, cheetah, lions, and many more are far greater from the comfort of your car, on designated roads, than if you are out on foot, even with an experienced tracker.

But from the North American point of view, the Kruger is an oddity, a national park with an airport and camp grounds with swimming pools, car washes, gas stations, and a restaurant chain which serves greasy burgers, fries, cake and beer.

sunset The lower 48 States do not have a park this large. At 19,633 square kilometres, the Kruger is similar to the area of the country of Holland. In California lies Death Valley National Park and wilderness, a smaller 13,650 square kilometres in comparison. With temperatures as high as 135F / 57C, Death Valley sees nearly one million tourists per year (and does not offer a full service airport, restaurant chain, or swimming pool).

It is of course unfair to make further comparisons between U.S. and South African parks. The size, type of tourists, and funding are completely different. Yet, I find myself frustrated, perhaps, for what is an obvious lack of sustainability in Kruger. Office mate and friend Gilad and I were never, not once asked to show ID as we drove into the walled camps at night, nor were we checked for our camping permit at the camping site. We could have come and gone freely, during the entire four days, likely far longer.

I have to wonder how this lack of attention to security is present at a larger scale, and how it relates to the well-known issue of rhino and elephant poaching?

According to the Kruger National Park, “Out of the 631 rhinos that had been killed by poachers between January and 6 August 2014, a shocking amount of 408 were killed in the Kruger National Park. Ferreira said that in order to protect these species, they would have to be removed from areas where they are in threat of being poached.”

With the Asian black market growing, where the astounding $65,000 USD per kilogram paid to poachers is far greater than a lifetime of earning for the average South African, the motivation to continue to kill these animals for their horns is impossible to ignore.

One possible solution includes an increase in armed response, with international policies enabling cross-border pursuits. But poachers are well armed (and well connected), the odds are in their favour. Ranchers more often cross fire with poachers than do Park officials, resulting in unfortunate fatalities. In Namibia, ranchers are reluctant to bring rhino onto their farms, despite the financial benefit, for the lives of their families are at great risk.

An effort to move hundreds of rhinos to other national parks, inside or outside of South Africa, and private game preserves is under way. But transporting one rhino out of South Africa will cost approximately $45,000. Further more, this would need to be conducted in secret in order that poachers do not know the new locations. In a country ripe with corruption, for how long will the locations be unknown?

Many rhino are de-horned, in order to curb the poachers appetite to kill these animals. Analyst are studying the effect of moving a vast storehouse of rhino horns in the hands of the Parks service into the black market, in theory reducing the value, over time, and offsetting the pressure on live animals. The long term effect is yet being conclusively determined.

At current counts, only 29,000 rhinos of the estimated 500,000 in the early 1900s remain on the planet. In 2011, the Western Black Rhino was declared extinct. Confrontation between poachers and Park officials, and more often private ranchers often prove fatal. There is no concern for human life when the stakes are so incredibly high.

It is unclear how this will end, as the park is simply too large to patrol by vehicle or on foot. Perhaps use of drones will give favour to the wardens. The NBC article “Drones Used to Stop Elephant and Rhino Poachers in Africa” discusses one attempt to put drones to use. National Geographic offers, “NatGeo: Fighting Poachers with Guns, Dogs, and Drones” as an overview of the current situation. And the BBC tells the story of “Poachers, We’re Watching You“, a camera and bio-monitor embedded in the rhino’s horn which alerts a stand-by, helicopter team to the death of a rhino such that the poachers may be apprehended before they take the life of many more animals that same evening.

The consensus is that we must reduce demand in the countries in which rhino horns and elephant ivory are consumed. But that takes time. We must protect these animals for as long as it takes, else we risk losing them permanently.

(Gilad and I did not see a rhino in Kruger National Park)

On a positive note, thank you Gilad for an incredible four days. I enjoyed every minute of your company. Let’s be certain to do it again, some day soon.

elephant elephant elephant lion
tortoise millipede wart hog dung beetle
impala Kai Staats: Kruger National Park hyaena crocodile
fervent monkeys bird water buffalo dung beetle on human hand
humans talking humans walking, afraid human baboons

By | 2017-04-10T11:17:35+00:00 December 12th, 2014|2014, Out of Africa|Comments Off on Kruger National Park, a photo essay

Partner in Time

Cities have never given me comfort. I find the visual arena less than compelling, a clear example of the human species’ inability to plan beyond a few years at a time. In the audible arena, it is overwhelming. The constant drone of traffic, sirens, and construction is enough to drive anyone to commit a heinous crime.

Yet, I realise, I am in the minority. Some ninety percent of the population of the planet lives within high density populations and not only survive, but apparently thrive.

We adapt reactively far better than we do proactively develop.

I am both enjoying my social interactions and at the same time lonely here in Cape Town, in a way that I am just now coming to understand. I enjoy direct human interaction, day to day, week to week. Yet, the conversations seldom last long enough to garner what I feel is a deepening relationship for any given topic. The pace of life in the city is one that forces us to carve a few minutes here and there into lumps which may or may not span an hour such that we press against the momentum of a machine of our own blind design in order to stand still long enough to simply … talk.

I miss corded telephones. I may have a mobile phone at my side, but the telephone was once a device which demanded a kind of concentration on conversations that found depth through time. In this African standard pay-as-you-go market, no one can afford that luxury. The mobile phone encourages multi-tasking, not good listening. SMS and WhatsApp are now the de facto means of communication, incomplete, written sentences with conveyed attempts at emotion have all but replaced the sound of a human voice.

I often return an SMS with a phone call, in order to conduct a proper conversation, only to receive an answerig service. I am successful in that I enjoy the recording of a human voice, but the thumbs which conveyed an SMS just moments earlier were apparently exhausted, unable to execute the required swipe and press of just one more virtual button.

I recall, as a child, staying up late into the night at the side of my childhood friend Chris Boernke. We were at her parents’ home in semi-rural South Dakota, not far from Rapid City. Our families, four and four, two sisters in their clan, two brothers in mine, would come together a few times a year for a long weekend.

After a day of hiking and home cooked dinner served between thick, wood beam walls whose sap, in places, yet ran, we talked. I could hear the murmur of my parents speaking upstairs from where I sat with Chris. My brother Jae and Chris’ sister Melissa were already asleep. Chris and I told ghost stories authored on the spot. We spoke of California sliding into the sea and of a future in which humans would live on another planet.

We sat side by side. I could feel the heat of her body, but as we were just kids, holding hands, even leaning against each other was not a consideration. We talked. For hours. In a darkness in which we could not discern other’s faces, we shared things we would never express if our eyes were visible to each other.

Sometimes it is the silent visual domain and opaque sound space that gives us the freedom to be present in a moment. Sometimes it is doing nothing that enables a future in which everything is possible.

I have too many times these past six months experienced days and weeks as though only hours had passed. Friends and associates claim this is age, that it happens to us all. I argue instead it is the age of expectation which drives time at the end of a whip, not a leash.

I know where one can return to that space and time, that domain in which time slows again.

Where asphalt and concrete are but reflections lost to a glow on the horizon and the rumble of traffic is replaced with the audible crumble of a gravity bound stream, falling over and over again, time too takes notice and relaxes its pace.

I may yet purchase a car while living here, if for no other reason than to visit a friend when the last train has retreated to the other end of the line. Or I will continue to call, at the expense of my mobile minutes, hoping for an answer.

But I prefer a night soon spent, side by side a nearly invisible partner, engaged in conversation in which time takes us to a multi-verse. California is an island retreat, ghosts are haunted by humans, and we return from an interstellar voyage with tales of far away places waiting to be explored.

There, in the silence of darkness unperturbed by the reminder of time, will the minutes become hours and hours days, and the city is but a relic of one’s fading memory.

By | 2017-04-10T11:17:35+00:00 October 16th, 2014|2014, Out of Africa|Comments Off on Partner in Time

A Night Beneath the Stars

Kai Staats: south pole from Sutherland Kai Staats: 20" telescope at Sutherland

Last night I sat alone, on the flattop remnant of an ancient volcanic intrusion, it’s hardened crust resisting erosion moreso than the surrounding terrain. This is where the telescopes reside, spaceships that travel millions of light years but never leave the launching pad.

I sat on a folded blanket, three layers on top, two on the bottom. The air was perfectly still, the sky dark overhead. I read the latest novel by sci-fi master Ben Bova while pressing the shutter on my camera, via remote, over 200 times. Each exposure was 20 seconds long, capturing the SALT observatory silhouetted against the centre of the galaxy.

Satisfied I had captured enough for a timelapse animation, I repacked my camera, book, water, nuts, and blanket and walked along the paved road to the observatory which houses the 20″ telescope on which I have been training. Pierre was conducting his observation run, and doing research into which objects we might photograph the following night.

The moon was rising when I departed, visiting the two astronomers in the 1.9m observatory. Danika, a Ph.D. student from Serbia training under her professor from Australia.

I had left my camera running, a long exposure at low ISO to capture star trails behind the SALT observatory.

Ever time I step into an observatory dome, I am overcome with a sense of childhood thrill, the kind that Jae and I likely shared when we built a fort in our shared bedroom, made of card tables and blankets and flash lights, or when as a child I first visited NASA JPL and saw the Galileo spacecraft under construction.

For me, the observatory has this kind of mind-expanding capacity, for it reaches to the night sky and receives photons from distant galaxies each with billions of stars, massive explosions closer to home, and of the stuff that gives foundation to the formation of planets which may be home to inquisitive creatures looking back at us.

The telescopes are tremendous achievements of engineering and design. There is an incredible sense of accomplishment when you one move, a 3-story, multi-ton creature of iron, steel, and glass as graceful as a dancer; as accurate as a laser.

Like astronauts, the astronomers reside in a small, cramped quarters monitoring the light received by the telescope just outside. Following each observation, one rises, slips through the door which isolates the telescope from their heat and light, to adjust the direction the instrument is pointing.

Returning to their seat, warm cup of tea or coffee or hot chocolate, the music, conversation, and observation resume.

Night after night, week after week, across the planet, thousands of individuals dedicate their sleepless hours to gathering data which helps us better understand our world.

By | 2017-04-10T11:17:35+00:00 September 20th, 2014|2014, Looking up!, Out of Africa|Comments Off on A Night Beneath the Stars

Return to the Karoo

Kai Staats: Sutherland, South Africa Kai Staats: Sutherland, South Africa Kai Staats: Sutherland, South Africa Kai Staats: Sutherland, South Africa

Kai Staats: Sutherland, South Africa Kai Staats: Sutherland, South Africa Kai Staats: Sutherland, South Africa Kai Staats: Sutherland, South Africa

Kai Staats: Sutherland, South Africa Just outside of Sutherland, South Africa, a small town like so many others yet recovering from the effects of the apartheid era, lies the primary site of the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO).

At 1800 meters elevation, this plateau hosts a wide variety of observatories, including Africa’s largest telescope, SALT (South Africa Large Telescope). The area surrounding the site is an extension of the Greater Karoo desert, in the high western Roggeveld Mountains.

Astronomers visit the SAAO Sutherland site from around the world. The U.S., Germany, France, Poland, Korea, Australia, Japan and many more are annually represented.

As with all professional astronomical sites, distance from large cities and light pollution is imperative. This lends itself to a place that can be challenging for those who feign relative isolation, and a safe haven for those who crave places where man-made inventions do not overwhelm the senses.

Kai Staats: Sutherland, South Africa Today, my first day on site, I packed a bottle of water, jacket, and camera and set out on foot to explore. The upper reaches of the site feed a wide water drainage. To one side of the shallow canyon there exists a broken sandstone canyon wall which caught my attention last year, when conducting interviews for “The Explorers“.

What I discovered brought me back to who I am, camera in hand, watching, listening, discovering. Lichen, moss, armoured locusts, and piles of bones. The rusted wire fence lines alone captured my attention for half an hour. The warm sun and brisk wind did battle for command of the weather while I oscillated between overheating and feeling chilled despite my thermal layer.

Kai Staats: Milky Way over Sutherland, SA
Where the wind-blown, sun-baked desert
meets myriad firey stars,
A yet stagnant, earth-bound species
contemplates worlds it may one day explore.

By | 2017-04-10T11:17:35+00:00 September 10th, 2014|2014, Looking up!, Out of Africa|Comments Off on Return to the Karoo

The Haves and the Have-Nots

Today was my second day back in South Africa. I woke at 5:30 am and by 6:30 was on my way to the Office of Home Affairs. Two and a half hours later, the line only one hour long, I learned my visa remains unprocessed after some three months. I now have the email address of a clerk who promises to do her best to resolve this less than ideal situation.

I came back to Muizenberg, caught up on email, two hours sleep, and then a run on the beach before returning to Cape Town for dinner with classmate and master cook Nav, Bruce and his wife Linda, and the TEDx AIMS cast and crew.

It felt good to again be barefoot on the beach, splashing in the now frigid water. My usual round-trip of seven and half kilometers was the ideal distance to wake me up and wear me down.

On the run from the beach front to the second fresh water inlet, four guys, higher up on the sand called to me, “Sir. Sir.” I assumed they wanted to sell something and ignored them the first half dozen times. “Sir!” one yelled louder. I turned and he asked for the time. I pulled up my sleeves to reveal that I was not wearing a watch, shrugged, and said I didn’t know. Annoyed, I continued my run.

At the second river mouth, where fresh water meets the salty sea, I stopped to stretch and admire the many ways in which the water and wind had redesigned the sand since my last run more than one month prior.

An abrupt, one and a half meter cliff now stood where before there was only a gently rolling dune with sparse vegetation. The face had crumbled and remained unstable. I admired the work of water, gravity, and time.

Across the deep, heavy flow of the river were over one hundred sea gulls. One dropped something from its beak. Upon hitting the sand, two other gulls pecked at whatever it was that was dropped, but also found it of no interest.

I was pleased to be running again with legs that were without complaint and lungs that felt no pain after a month of limited physical exercise. I turned into the wind and started back, my feet dipping in and out of the water as the waves spilled across the sand in varied depths.

Just ten minutes into my return run, I noted on the horizon a runner coming toward me. I had just caught the reflection of a broken bottle, which is rare on this beach, and discarded it higher on the dune. When I came back down to the shore, I recognised the familiar outline of Adriaan, a tutor at AIMS, climber, and soft-spoken friend.

We had exchanged a text message earlier in the day, my announcing my return. I was pleased to find him on the beach, also barefoot and running.

We talked for a brief moment, turned to run together back to the second river, and then again ‘about for the home stretch. A few minutes in, the same four guys came toward us, again calling out, “Hey! Wait a minute!” I thought, What do they want this time?

It happened quickly, without time to consider what was unfolding. At first, all four were to our right, just a few meters up the beach. Then they broke into sets of two, and quickly approached me and Adriaan, arms out-stretched, grabbing.

We were being jumped.

They reached for Adriaan first, trying to hold him. One approached me and my heart raced. Everything I had visualized I would do in a situation like this, given that most everyone I know in this country has been mugged once or twice, fell away as adrenaline took flight.

None of my training in martial arts some twenty five years earlier mattered, no quick index finger to the throat, no sand in the eyes, no destabilising nor using their weight to my advantage. Nothing but an open brawl unfolded, one on me and two on Adriaan. The taller of the four remained at a distance, holding something in his hands.

I recalled an image of my life long friend and mentor Ron Spomer when he and I were cycling around the foothills of Moscow, Idaho. To the front of a small farm house a large dog barrelled from the porch, across the yard, through the gate and to our bikes. Ron immediately braked, jumped off his bike, his shorts, grey hiking socks, running shoes and pocket knife as his side fixed in my memory. He yelled and waved his arms charging directly at the snarling, barking animal. It turned, made itself small, and ran back into the yard. I was in disbelief at what I had just seen, my own heart yet pounding. Ron laughed as he climbed back onto his bike, saying “Kaister, you just gotta show ’em you’re not afraid.”

I screaming what came to my mouth, making a stand and at the same time boosting my own confidence as Ron had done.

“What the fuck?! You want to fight?!” Of course, I had no idea what I was doing, no plan at all. It was the adrenaline yelling, my body along for the ride. The one closest, directly in front of me stopped circling for just a moment. He hesitated and turned and that was all I needed to see that I could invoke fear in him too.

“Come on! LET’S DO THIS! C-O-M-E O-N!” I screamed louder.

I hit him square in the face and he was caught off-guard, taking a few steps back. I turned, looking for Adriaan who was holding off his attacker knee deep in the cold water. I took a half dozen steps through the water toward him and turned my attention to his attacker. He faced me and I swung a few times, connecting with his arms. I swung again and again, over and over in order to not give him ample time to get into my space.

It’s funny what happens at times like this. The brain freezes frames in this live-action animation, analyzes them, and spits out strange ideas. I remember thinking his arms were really skinny, and his eyes really wide. I recall my fear of being hit, knowing full well that contrary to the movies one hit to the nose and I would not be able to see; to the temple and I could black out in the water. I knew to avoid grappling at all costs, for that is where knives took form and only experienced wrestlers would win.

Out of the corner of my eye the taller of the four held something in his hands, over his head, ready to throw. I never saw what he held nor did he throw it. A stone? A log? Later, Adriaan said one had a knife, but I am not certain who.

Adriaan moved out of the water, and out of my sight. I continued to engaged in a dance with same attacker to my front. He attempted to hit me, but never connected. I hit his face once or twice and he complained, surprised. The distance was too great to cause any harm. My intent was just to get the hell out of this mess.

Then I turned and saw Adriaan up on the beach, on his knees with hands in the air. The taller of three stood watch while the remaining two moved into check for valuables on his person. That’s all they wanted, money or a watch or cell phone.

I yelled to them, keeping an eye on the attacker who was to my rear as he worked his way up on the beach to join the others, “You fucking idiots! We don’t have anything! All of this for what?! –NOTHING!”

I felt horrible for I had failed to remain close to Adriaan. When I ran toward them, yelling again, they stood to face me. Adriaan wrestled free and got away, looking over his shoulder to see if they would pursue.

He arrived to my location and the four of them moved up and over the dunes as we turned to run back toward Muizenberg. I asked Adriaan if he was ok. He confirmed, as did I. We were lucky these guys were total amateurs, and we knew it.

This story is not about fighting. I am not bragging by any means, for anything I learned about self defense was forgotten a long time ago. Even then, in the late ’80s, I was not able to do anything more than duck, dodge, and throw a few punches if I had to.

I abhor violence. The older I grow, the less I am able to tolerate violence in the media, film, even conversation. I walk away from discussion about wielding guns to resolve a confrontation (a common topic in the U.S.). I don’t want violence in my body nor in my mind for it lingers like a nightmare that was all too real.

I know that what unfolded today was but a simple, unsuccessful mugging. The violence I have experienced in my life is nothing compared to that of children who grow up with abusive parents, of that which my adopted children Lindah and Bernard witnessed in and around their orphanage in the slums of Nakuru, Kenya; or those who live in Guatemala, Syria, or the Congo.

I call one of the safest countries in the world home. I spent my formative years in the Mid West without concern for sleeping at night, without concern for walking to school alone, nor even the need to lock doors. But given how I feel inside, how much it has affected me this day and for many to come, I cannot help but wonder if the American culture does not celebrate violence for the very lack of it in our personal lives, a kind of tease to a dance that no one really wants to learn.

How many of us have faced someone at arms length, their face contorted, their fists intent to harm? It is not the same as a video game, I assure you. It is not like watching a movie. The last time I experienced this was in Chicago. I was 18 years old and a “24/7” with the Guardian Angels citizen crime fighting organisation. We were posted in a transitional neighbourhood, working to drive the drug dealers and gangs out. A dozen men poured out of a local bar with weight lifter’s belts and wooden broom sticks, intent upon severely injuring each and every one of us.

To this day I yet remember the smell of my own fear, the sound of their voices as they threatened our lives, the crunching of gravel beneath my feet as I ran down the alley leaving my patrol members behind. We scattered. Sergei, the smallest of our patrol, fought until they beat him down and sent him to the hospital. To this day I regret leaving him behind.

Adriaan and I found three police officers where they always park, beneath the end of the boardwalk. Two were relatively uninterested, the third asked that we file a report. Apparently, there had been similar muggings for the past week on that stretch of beach. If they catch the muggers, they need a history to prosecute against. I will file mine in the morning.

Adriaan crossed under the boardwalk to return to his home. I sprinted the final few hundred meters, ankle deep in the water, fresh spray soaking what remained dry of my shirt and jacket. It was all I could do to not break down during the run back. My body was filled with adrenaline and pain. Not the pain of a bruised temple or cheek, but the pain of recognising that inside of me is a fury which can be activated too easily.

This will likely happen to me again, maybe a few times over the next two years as muggings are common in Cape Town as they once were in New York City, anywhere the disparity between the haves and the have-nots is glaring, a kind of demand for improved resource allocation.

Yet, this does not define Muizenberg nor does it change my enthusiasm for living here. Most everyone here has a similar story, under various circumstances.

Even now, I desire to find these guys, to capture their story on film. I want to know their names, how much money they make a week selling stolen items, and how they justify their actions. If I or Adriaan had been injured I may feel different, but at this moment their story needs to be heard for the situation to change, for everyone.

By | 2017-04-10T11:17:35+00:00 June 19th, 2014|2014, Out of Africa|0 Comments