Sunday, December 06, 2009

South Africa, Day 3

It gets bright very early in South Africa in the summertime. No amount of curtains can keep out the blazing sun, which rises before 5am and wakes up the very noisy birds and other animals. My expected 7 hours of sleep became about 5 hours of sleep when I eventually gave up and stumbled into the shower/bath to spray the bathroom walls again (although less than the day before, as I am starting to get a hang of these things).

This was a working day in the morning, and one that required a suit, a species of clothing that I usually reserve for weddings and funerals. Although more formal, this day’s meetings were also very productive and generated a sense of excitement about the future that just cannot be communicated over remote teleconferences. These are some very dedicated and very smart folks, and I am very lucky that they allow me to associate with them and even listen to my opinions on occasion. It is quite stimulating, and reminds me very much of early days at the startups I’ve worked for – although the pace is a bit slower since the “products” are relying on progress in some basic research.

Following the meetings and a light dinner, Roelf #1 (the acting CEO as opposed to Roelf #2, the dean of the engineering school) took me shopping in preparation for my trip to the game preserve. I picked up some UP colors for the kids at the university store and some more traditional gear at a mall neat Roelf #1’s home.

We went to the mall near Roelf #1’s home because he was worried about us leaving our computers and other equipment in the back of his car while we were shopping. Crime is indeed a serious problem here, but leaving a computer in your car isn’t smart even in Dunwoody, so I couldn’t criticize that decision. Plus, it gave me time to see Roelf #1’s house and gated community prior to returning with a crowd for dinner.

Roelf #1 lives in a gated and fenced community on the other side of Pretoria that hold about 1500 houses (don’t hold me to that, as I have been told many more new and interesting facts that my aging brain can accurately recall). Roelf’s house is open and very large with a thatched roof and open beams throughout. I’ve never seen anything like it, although it is apparently common here. Roelf’s lovely wife apologized that they had just had the roof combed and some dirt and dust was still filtering down on occasion. That’s not a sentence I ever expected to write, certainly not about such an amazing home.

Inside the walls, Roelf’s community has an area reserved for wildlife, and there are waterbok and springbok and other animals wandering about. We saw a springbok eating one resident’s newly planted flowering tree in their front yard. The rules are that you either put up a fence or live with the consequences – no other alternative allowed. People who live there are willing to put up with the inconvenience of munched shrubbery to live so close to nature and I would certainly make the same decision given the choice.

At the malls, there is tight security in the fenced-in parking lots which are not free parking. The norm is two hours free on weekdays and no hours free on weekends. Inside, the mall looked very much like any other western mall, albeit with store names that I did not recognize. At the South African equivalent of an REI, I picked up some appropriate clothing with generous and very friendly help from the staff who worked long and hard – and in vain – to find a hat that would fit my head. (This is, of course, not an indictment of the store as 99% of US stores don’t have hats that fit me either.) While normally frugal, I probably am going to max out a credit card during this trip, and I probably bought more than I should have. However, everything was unique and did not look like something I could buy at a local Atlanta venue, so perhaps I can be forgiven the indulgence.

After a quick stop at his home to pick up my things, Roelf dropped me back at the hotel for a few hours of rest and the chance to change out of suit-based clothing. I used the time to finally spend some time on the internet catching up on email and Tiger Woods and a long call home for the first time this trip. The lack of internet and cell service is still unnerving. One feels very cut off from home base and the world outside of the few people around oneself. The fact that one is having a marvelous time does tend to take the sting out a bit.

Roelf #1 picked me up in time to get back to his house before guests started arriving. I mentioned to him that my lovely wife has asked me to pick up some African art while here, but that I’m not sure what to look for. In response, Roelf had his wife lead me on a tour of their personal collection, pointing out items that native Africans consider to be collectable and making recommendations. The variety, quality, and ingenuity represented in African art is overwhelming and like nothing I have encountered anywhere else in the world. She suggested a few places for shopping, assuming that I could find the time and the transportation. For these suggestions, I am eternally grateful.

Dinner at Roelf #1’s home was fabulous. There were three couples and me, so I completely set off the boy/girl ratio. Conversation flowed easily between languages, and I honestly believe that most people forgot that I couldn’t understand the Afrikaans part. When I later mentioned how impressed I was that everyone speaks two languages, Pieter’s wife responded “four, dear”.

Before the meal, everyone held hands and Roelf #1 said a blessing. It was a small thing, but unexpected in a largely business setting, and it made me feel very much an accepted part of the group even if it was in Afrikaans and I have no idea what was said. (Upon reflection, I just assumed that it was a blessing. Maybe it was a traditional South African prayer that the American at the table wouldn’t do something crass and embarrassing.)

The meal included a salad covered with a South African jerky that is made by drying only (not curing) and is something that South Africans are very proud of. I did explain that Texas jerky was different from the sugar-infused stuff sold in stores, so at least part of the US can arguably claim their jerky is competitive with the South African variety. Several other times on the trip I was offered the South African variety, and always with the same sense of pride. Meat was lamb, and vegetables included a variety that I mostly recognized, and all of it was very, very good. As I declined alcohol, fruit juice was offered as a tasty alternative.

A side note on fruit juice. When I meet with my South African colleagues in the US, they invariably ask for fruit juice at the meal. The waiter is invariably surprised by the request. I now understand why the request is made. With the quality and variety of juices available here, I would get used to having fruit juices at every meal, too. From orange to strawberry to intoxicating cocktail blends, the juices have been delicious. I even enjoyed a strawberry-based juice cocktail, something I would not normally drink in the US. With my inability to drink alcohol or caffeine, I would love to have the juice alternatives that are available here in South Africa to be available in the restaurants of Atlanta.

Conversation over dinner was interesting and stimulating, and ranged from family genealogy to South African history to technology and back again, taking wonderful side trips along the way. It is interesting how no one shies away from the topic of apartheid, both before and after the transition to democracy. In the US, we tend to avoid talking about the civil rights movement because most people consider it an embarrassment – especially with non-US colleagues in the room. Here, it is an open topic which is refreshing, although I wonder if the conversation would be different with blacks and whites both in the room together.

For the ride home, Pieter and his wife apparently lost the toss and were designated the latest losers in the chauffer-the-American contest. On the way home, I mentioned that my wife wants me to pick up some African art, but that I wasn’t sure when I would get a chance. I mentioned what Roelf #1’s wife had suggested, including shopping at the airport on the way out. In response, Pieter immediately volunteered to pick me up the following morning and take me to a local curio shop. He would not consider any objections and planned to meet me at 9 the next morning after a long night’s sleep.

This is a group of people that I feel very comfortable with and would be pleased to be associated with for a long and hopefully successful future.

The rest of the story:

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