Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Monkeying around

Our plan to pick up crocodile and dalmatian costumes fell apart as quickly as the plan to get them was made, but our appointment with Bastiaan was still on and we were determined to do it in style. We found a small costume shop just a few blocks from the train station and settled on dressing as hairy apes.

Sometimes Plan B turns out better than Plan A.

Undetered by the arrival of two mute primates at his reception, Bastiaan welcomed us in to his office and offered us a drink. We declined. Although we were severely thirsty, it didn't work well with the masks.

Carrie grabbed a marker and began drawing on a white board. One circle in the top left hand corner that she labelled 'start'. Another circle at the bottom right hand corner that she labelled 'end'. Bastiaan nodded and filled the space in between with some symbols. He then smiled, handed us a card and said he would send us an invoice.

There are not many people who would play along like this, and not many who would drop everything and take the afternoon off to welcome surprise visitors to his home. But Bastiaan is special. He's the kind of person worth making up a fake appointment, taking a train from Paris and dressing up as an ape for.

On a separate note, it was interesting to spend time with Carrie in a place like Utrecht. It's an idyllic town, with all of the most charming characteristics of Amsterdam and none of the crowds and tourist shops. And it is safe, clean, easy. It's a big contrast to the world that she has been watching (and desperately trying to change) during the last two years in South Africa. Everything seems perfect.

She was telling me a story over lunch about an organization near Cape Town that is trying to improve access to toilets in the townships, with a goal of reducing the distance for anyone to reach a toilet to less than 400 meters. It seems obvious that this is a good idea just in terms of the nuisance of having to walk so far for a basic necessity. But, it's not just about the nuisance. Taking a walk like that in the middle of the night comes with the risk of rape, robbery and being attacked by dogs.

It's the kind of issue that can get easily reduced to simple descriptive terms like 'poverty' or 'sanitation challenges'. But, what does that even mean to anyone? It's not just that you can't afford school supplies or electricity or whatever. When you think about the actual implications of the situation on the day-to-day livelihoods of people stuck in it, it's pretty heavy.

I think that Carrie feels that this trip will be a chance to take a break from the harsh social issues of South Africa. Perhaps it will be. Or perhaps it will just reinforce that these problems exist everywhere.

On the one hand, it would seem that moving west from Istanbul, places should become progressively more socially and economically developed, until we reach Paris, the pinnacle of socio-economic development.

On the other hand, when I think of Paris, I can't help but think of the families living on the street in front of my apartment. The woman and three children (who are, I would estimate, between 4 and 10 years old) who spend their entire days and nights in a phone booth on the corner. And the other family, with two young kids, living on the vent beside the Hippopotamus restaurant. There are many more families across the street. And then there is the issue of the suburbs.

If Paris is a model of socio-economic development, and we are starting from some less developed place, this journey certainly won't be a break from social issues. But it will be an adventure, and that's what we came for.


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