On Fellowship and Community

IMG_7085.JPG
“The glory of friendship is not the outstretched hand, not the kindly smile, nor the joy of companionship; it is the spiritual inspiration that comes to one when you discover that someone else believes in you and is willing to trust you with a friendship.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Over the last few weeks we’ve continued on what I consider to be the most crucial undertaking to-date for our transition, making friends. We left a city where we were rich with community. From the faculty of the school where I worked to the running teams and our friends from graduate school, we were well connected socially to Nashville. I still email and text with the old world daily, but I’m starting to feel the isolation of this new place set in. It’s not loneliness yet, I do have my wife and boys here after all, and they provide tremendous joy and daily inspiration. But I’ve also spent almost every minute of the last five weeks talking only with them (and 66% of them are under the age of 7), so you can imagine my delight in the fortuitous meeting of some fellow ex-pats. As a teacher I found that it was always important to ensure each student had formed a connection to someone on the first day. New students, exchange students, English learners, artists, athletes, thespians, all needed to be connected to their communities by people who act as social cicerones. These beautiful people who recognize the isolated, often from their own experience, and extend a welcoming gesture are my personal heroes. In school I’ve found that cross country runners and theater kids are often the best at inviting the outsiders in. They are usually more motley and therefore the most welcoming to new faces regardless of circumstance. The need for these social ushers is no different for adults in new communities.

Ex-pats are by definition strangers in a strange land, and I thought some work would be required to find community. But I never imagined just how difficult it would be to meet people when you lack language and some social literacy. We are staying in a very densely populated Afrikaans and German speaking area of East Pretoria. Both cultures have been cordial, but in our experiences they are also mostly closed to outsiders. After initial curiosity, conversations never really develop or extend beyond the introductions despite our best efforts. During our first few weeks, we’ve met a few parents from the American School, but as we arrived in the middle of the term and school year we’ve also found that many families are in their established routines and accustomed to the rhythm of their days. We’ve also missed out on all the orientation and meet-and-greets hosted by the school for this year. Enter the isolation and loneliness that is all too familiar for ex-pat families.

Then last week when we were walking in the park (the same one where we had tried and also given up on making friends with local German parents) my eldest ran up to me and declared “Hey Pop, that boy speaks English like me!” He pointed toward a family sitting nearby, but I was only slightly encouraged. We have tried to explain the difference between the versions of English to our sons, but it’s often lost in translation. To my surprise my son meant the boy actually spoke American English, not the heavily accented-English that is the second tongue we are becoming accustomed to. As we walked closer the mother of the two boys that our son was playing with stood and introduced herself. I felt optimistic almost immediately. She and her husband have spent most of the last twenty years living abroad, mostly in Africa, and she had recognized us both as American and also as a bit crestfallen. We immediately hit it off and within hours she had texted us with recommendations for local restaurants, safe outdoor play areas, and had invited us to dinner the following night. Our new friends also connected us with another ex-pat English teacher and fellow runner. That very night he had also texted to invite me out for a long run that weekend. While the run itself was a brutal reminder of how far my fitness has fallen since 2016, I thoroughly enjoyed the company and conversation. Sometimes all it takes is someone to say “You can sit with us.”

I’ve been in love with international travel since a trip to Italy as a senior in high school almost 20 years ago. In my adult life the world has been both terrifyingly immense and simultaneously surprisingly close-knit. When I was younger I spent too many days and nights thinking that the world I desired to be a part of was distant and unreachable, when in fact the social connection I wanted was just outside my door. Distance, I have learned, is often more an obstacle of imagination rather than one of space and time. The world is full of serendipity and connections are never far away. As evidence of this I offer up the time Erin and I travelled half away around the world with a group of high school students only to run into a college ex-girlfriend on the island of Rhodes in Greece. Or the time I flew across the country to a track meet at Stanford only to sit down next to a guy who lived on the same Oxford campus at the same time as I did? How many times have you bumped into faces and names from your past in the most random times and places? I’ve gotten used to running into former students, but I’m never prepared for making the connections half-a-world away. And even here, a place I thought would be the farthest away from the circles I’ve run in, I find that an American school family has roots in Brunswick, Maine and attended Mt. Ararat High School. For twenty minutes we named common friends and summer jobs and experiences. And the woman who introduced herself in the park? She was a roommate with one of my high school friends at William and Mary. This world is expansive, and yet friends and friends of friends are everywhere if I can just get out of my own way to meet them.

An update on last week’s blog. We own cars! And even better, they might be insured! It was a process filled with tribulation, but I think we are the better for it. Yes, it might be possible that we ultimately paid a bribe (or two) during the sketchy registration process (we’ll never know for sure…), but we are now driving around in two street-legal vehicles, complete with run-flat tires and smash-and-grab window protection. So that’s good news, I think. And since we now own some stuff outright in South Africa, we are starting to feel more and more like residents rather than extended tourists. This sense of ownership is empowering. In addition, we only have a little more than a week of hotel living before we get to make a house our home. If you’re keeping score, we are now in week ten of hotel residence. I know I speak for all the Bennetts here when I say that we are ready to be home again.

Be good and keep in touch.

Learning Morse Code

fullsizeoutput_eae.jpeg
Members and coaches of the 1998 Yarmouth High School Ski Teams. This week head Coach Bob Morse retired from coaching after 48 years and 32 state titles.

This week my hometown celebrated the retirement of my high school cross country and ski coach. Bob Morse is one of the figures whose impact transcends the role of teacher and athletics coach. For 48 years he guided Maine athletes to the highest levels of sport and while doing so he also instilled in them a deep appreciation for the outdoors, a respect for their own potential, and demonstrated a generosity with his knowledge of athletics. Like most young people, I struggled with finding a place and direction. Morse was a constant support and mentor for me. He was patient, and he was accepting. He took time to listen and to ask questions. With Morse I always felt like he believed in me and in my potential even when I didn’t believe in myself. For that gift I will always be grateful.

Last fall at a cross country meet I was thanked by a parent for being a voice of reason in their child’s life. I think it was a bit hyperbole, but I understand how adults can affect the trajectory of a young person’s life in ways their parents can’t. The words a parent speaks to their teen often fall of closed minds, but when those same words come from a respected coach or teacher they are valued as a much greater currency. I understood what these parents were saying because it was also this way for me. My parents tried to give me what I needed, but the suggestion and advice always meant so much more coming from Morse. When parents thank me for giving time and energy to their students and athletes, I never know how to react. It’s not entirely selfless. I’m paying a debt. I feel I’m only doing what was done for me by Morse and many other teachers, both formally and informally. Of course I will do the same for others. That’s how community works, right? And it’s my hope that someday someone of integrity will also be the mentor and role model for my sons when they stop listening to me. The old adage “it takes a village,” has become a cliché, but there is still truth in the sentiment. I prefer the Ugandan proverb, “A child does not grow up only in a single home.” We all have many parents and grandparents who look out for us. When we reach that age, it is our turn to do the same. And though we haven’t seen each other in recent years, I will always consider Morse and the Yarmouth coaches and faculty to be part of my family. I doubt that I’m the only former athlete who feels this way.

Scan 103630032.jpg
Another year, another state title for Bob Morse and the Yarmouth High School Ski Team.

When remembering those years, I feel deeply fortunate to have experienced Morse at his finest, first as a seventh grade mathematics teacher and later as a coach for ten athletic seasons. I ran cross country, I skied, and I competed on the track for him. As a self-critical teenager (is there any other kind?) I could and often would disappoint myself with my athletic performances, but I never once felt like I let Morse down. His voice of encouragement and positivity was selfless and plentiful. Morse embodied the positive energy that we needed. There was one time after a morning ski race when my future bother-in-law intentionally prevented the team’s return to campus and class by wondering off. I thought for sure this would anger him. True to form Morse never raised his voice or showed distemper. When one of our athletes was kicked off a mountain for jumping from a ski lift, he simply shook his head in disbelief. At heart I believe he was just as mischievous as the rest of us. He took us to the mountains for pre-season camps, for training, and for racing. Long before geocaching was popular, Morse took our math class to a place called Fat Hog Hill for orienteering lessons. After giving us a compass and the initial control point, he climbed back on the bus and said he would see us for lunch at the terminus. We stood in the middle of the Western Maine hills looking at each other as the bus pulled off down the dirt road. Athletically and academically, Morse’s challenges were always set just outside of our comfort level, but always within our ability.

I don’t think there was a greater joy for him than to bring young people into the sports and community he loved. Because he never valued results more than his athlete’s development, the state titles came organically and routinely. As a coach I appreciate and try to replicate how Morse treated his least talented athletes with the same energy and support as he did his All-Americans. He cultivated winning programs by growing people. Morse invested his time and energy in the athletes of Maine for nearly half a century. I often think of how his wisdom was camouflaged by wit and humor. Our teams found camaraderie trying to decipher his riddles and enigmas which pitted our minds against his. As documented by Kathleen Fleury in last month’s Downeast Magazine, Morse’s knowledge of the state of Maine and his innate talent for finding skiable snow in warmer winter months was never less than astounding. But for me, his ability to pass off his wisdom in dismissive asides and throw away answers which sometimes left my head spinning that was impressive. Morse’s Zen-like one-liners and repartee that contained multiple meanings always left me wondering how much more he knew than he was letting on. It was simply a joy to be on his teams.

Scan 103630009
Yarmouth XC 1997.

Morse was a true athlete’s coach. He wanted us to be the best athletes we could be, and he knew that in order to achieve that end we needed to become the best people we could be. Years after I left Yarmouth, I would occasionally return and stop by practice to catch up with him and see how the team was doing. But I always left feeling like he had learned more about my life than I did about his. Much of my teaching and coaching philosophies and practices stem from the experiences I had in his classroom and on his teams. I am eternally grateful for his generous gift of time and energy. He made the Maine athletic community infinitely better, and I’m certain his impact on will continue to be felt for generations.

So tonight, please join me in raising a glass or ringing a cowbell for a true luminary, one who lit the way for so many of us. Thank you, Morse! Heia! Heia!

Week Four – Car Buying In South Africa

Over the last two weeks we have embarked on a journey of both mind and spirit. At times it was comical, and other points it was depressing. But through it all, it felt absolutely absurd. I know, I know. This is the most ethnocentric and “Ugly American” position I can take. Let me see if I can outline the car buying process for you. If at the end of the day you still think I’m being judgmental, then I will happily re-evaluate my experience.

Before even looking at vehicles, people here need permission from the government to buy one. I say permission because the depth and sophistication of bureaucracy that needs to be navigated is a holdover from the apartheid days. It was meant to befuddle, confuse, and slow the social and economic progress of the oppressed. Under the guise of order and procedure, regulations became a standard way to prohibit people from gaining a social or economic foothold. While apartheid ended twenty-five years ago, the system used by that government is still in the D.N.A. of institutions and organizational cultures. But instead of applying mind-numbing layers of red tape to oppress certain people, it now exists and applies to everyone equally. After this experience I might start to see how and why corruption can flourish. Having a cousin working in the right office or knowing a friend who owes a you favor can be lucrative. If you don’t happen to have a personal connection to hook you up, knowing how and when to slip someone fifty Rand can get your application placed at the top of the stack or can help you bypass the lines of people waiting outside. With this in mind, we met our relocation liaison two weeks ago at the License Bureau in Centurion. She suggested we get an early start as the lines only tend to grow, and with them our chances of submitting our application on that day would diminish.

Before submitting an application for a T.R.N. (Traffic Registration Number, which is basically the file that documents that you are “in charge” of a vehicle), we needed to have a few things in order. First, and most importantly was proof of residence. Without this, you cannot hope to obtain a bank account or a cell phone or even a long term car rental. Since our lease doesn’t not officially begin until April 1, we asked for a letter from our hotel. This would suffice. We also needed passports with visas, driver’s licenses, and a copy of Erin’s employment verification. Easy enough. All of these documents seemed logical and familiar to us. In addition to these, we were told to bring four copies each of our passport photos, our birth certificates, copies of our passport pages and visas certified by our bank, and an A.N.R. form (the white one, not the blue one) filled out in BLACK pen, not blue. In addition it was suggested that an “affidavit” be signed and stamped at a police station which could help our cause. This is a sworn statement indicating why we needed a TRN (While I don’t know for sure, I think this is just another chance for someone to take home some extra cash). We passed on this option and ended up okay, but I got the feeling that its importance was determined on a case-by-case basis. At our appointed time we arrived at the traffic registration offices. They open at 9AM and the line was already 250 strong. People were standing quietly, patiently, counting the seconds with stiff upper lips. I settled in for a long day reminding myself that “This is water.” If you’re not familiar, please take ten minutes and watch the animated abbreviated version below.


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/188418265″>This is Water-David Foster Wallace</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user58158815″>alexander correll</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

After fifteen minutes of standing in the non-moving and ever growing line thinking about the lives of the people in front of us, we were waved to the side by our liaison. We were in the “wrong” line. She escorted us off to another building where the line was only about a dozen people. The feeling of hope at seeing only a few people in line ahead of us quickly diminished as we watched in horror as each individual was subsequently dismissed for not having proper documentation in order. It was like an episode of that 90’s trivia game show.

I mean, how could you possible think of getting a T.R.N. without first having evidence of your birth doctor’s credentials in triplicate?! What kind of second rate bureaucracy do you think this is? You are banished for your stupidity and insolence. 

Within the hour, our chance to prove our worthiness of owning a vehicle arrived, and we stepped up to the glass like Oliver Twist with application in hand. The woman on the other side nodded as she went through the paper work with a laser-like concentration. She was definitely looking for any chance to reject our attempt at obtaining a car. With a grunt of disdain, she initiated the application approval. I sighed with relief, and it seems like that’s all it took. “Oh no, no, no. You see here, you are applying for two TRNs, yes?” I felt a lump in my throat. What had we forgotten? I knew we should have brought along character witnesses and blood samples. “You see, he is not on a work visa, correct? Then he cannot apply for T.R.N. Are you married?” (Note: For the almost a decade, I have always confidently answered yes to this question, but it seems the lovely folks back in Tennessee would argue this point. It appears we might have started our family out of wedlock. My lawyer is looking into the matter).

“Yes, we are married.”

“Do you have proof?” I thought about holding up our eldest son, but I decided against it. This didn’t seem like the place that would appreciate my sense of humor. “Do you have a marriage certificate?” She repeated.

“Yes, but not with us.”

The slightest hint of a smile crept out of the corner of her mouth. It small, but it was there. Was this an opportunity for her to make a little extra money? I don’t know. I can’t read the situations where bribes are being requested yet.

“Come back when you have it. We can’t proceed until then.”

Silly Americans. You are the weakest link, goodbye.

And with that we walked out of the office, another unhappy non-customer. Our wedding certificate was in a stack of identification documents we were storing at Erin’s office which was located about a half-hour’s drive away. We didn’t want to lose another day coming back, so while our driver David took Erin to her office for a single piece of paper, the boys and I found a place for lunch.

Later that afternoon our second attempt at submitting the applications (this time with our marriage certificate in hand) was ultimately successful. As we were being fingerprinted (all ten digits in ink, not grease) and signing the application for the fifth time, we were told to come back on March 14th before noon. I wanted to ask what would happen if we came back a day early or after noon on the 14th, but I bit my tongue. Gift horses and all that. We thanked the woman for her help, and as I left I swear I noticed a head nod from her, one as if to say, “Well done, American. You have survived the first round, but it only becomes more difficult to get what you want from here…” Even the security guard seemed slightly impressed at our preparation, agility, and resilience. I felt his smile and look appreciated the fact that we had accomplished something without paying. Respect.

It is at this point I need to say that this, like with almost everything we do, was all Erin’s preparation and planning. I’m solid at the execution of plans, but she’s the mastermind behind it all. Buying a house? Enrolling a kid? Vacations? Grad school? Marathons? It’s all her foresight and groundwork. She’s the mitochondria of our living cell. Coming here was supposed to switch things up. In this world, I’m referred to as the “trailing spouse,” which means that I do not hold the work visa. Coming here and intentionally not working would allow me to assume the mastermind role and be the driver of the family for a few years. Erin has long supported my efforts in public education and coaching, and it is past time that she has the support at home to be able to thrive in her professional career. One catch though… because I do not have a work visa, I cannot get a bank account, I cannot purchase a car, sign a cell phone contract, or really do anything beyond look pretty and tell the boys to stop their mischief making. Erin needs to be the one to establish all the accounts and sign all the contracts because she’s the only one who has a work visa. But if she is setting up our financial and functional lives, she cannot also be at the office working which is our whole purpose for being here. Catch-22.

Like so many other places in this world, the “working spouse” in South Africa is still assumed to also be the head of the house. Traditionally this has been a man’s role. He is the worker so he has the name of the bank account and he adds his wife as an “auxiliary.” Seriously, that’s the word that is used. If he opens the cell phone contract because his job gives him credit, he can purchase and authorize an additional a line for his wife. This system is another example of a holdover from an earlier time. And like apartheid, it is one of control. Men have used their social and economic power to control the women in their life. I’m told by people who will openly answer my questions that women can and often do have bank accounts and cell phones in their own names now, but if (and when) women marry, accounts are transfered or opened in the man’s name. In fact, you should have seen the look our on personal banker’s face when we told her we wanted a joint account instead of a primary account holder with authorized user attached. She had never heard of such a thing. It seems that even in 2018, economic equality in marriage is still not as prevalent as I would like to think. Since our engagement Erin and I have shared a bank account. Our bills are our bills. Our paychecks are our paychecks. The lean years and the bountiful are ours together. I own her debt and she owns mine. We work together to budget our income regardless of where it comes from. It was one of our very first agreements as couple. I invest 100%. She invests 100%. It works for us. Without wanting to pass judgement, it seems to us that the idea of equally shared value and resources in relationships is as foreign as we are. The policies and regulations around goods and services like phones and cars reflect the attitudes that the traditional male breadwinners are still the more socially and economically valued partner over the supporting spouse. Which brings me to this quote and thought. I can’t wait to write more about the intensive labor practices I see women undertaking everyday. It is mind-blowing. But for now, just know that the inequality of the sexes in relationships is readily apparent, and yet very much accepted custom. This also raise questions for me. Do I say something when I see this inequality at work? Do I advocate? Do I criticize? What is my role here? Trailing-spouse? Feminist? Humanist? American? What does that even mean now?

quote-if-wealth-was-the-inevitable-result-of-hard-work-and-enterprise-every-woman-in-africa-george-monbiot-48-8-0833

(And as another aside, had Erin’s company purchased our cars upfront and then been reimbursed by us, all of these bureaucratic hurdles, bribery opportunities, and days out of the office could have been avoided. As it is, we continually remind ourselves that we are getting the full international experience by having to do the leg work on our own.)

So with our T.R.N. application submitted, we commenced car shopping in earnest last weekend by visiting a dozen dealerships with the hopes of finding both a reliable used commuter car and a used family vehicle which would seat seven for when guests visit. (You are coming to visit, right?) Very quickly Erin found a nice 2017 Hyundai with 15k miles on it, and after a test drive we made a deposit. We were told by the salesman that putting run-flat tires on car and installing smash-and grab protection on the windows would be no problem. It was a problem though. Little did he (and we) know that the only brands that are capable of having run flat tires are BMW, Mercedes, Mini, and Audi. For me, run-flat tires (those with reinforced sidewalls allowing you to drive 50 miles at 50mph) are essential. Erin’s commute is relatively easy and mostly on a very good toll roads. We intentionally picked our housing location based on the commute and our proximity to the international school. But even the best roads here can be littered with debris and the stuff that will literally fall off trucks. I know that “stuff that falls off of a truck” is usually a euphemism for stolen goods. However, in the last month I have seen more items fall from trucks than in my previous 22 years behind a wheel. I have seen mattresses, cans of paint, lumber, tires, and in one particularly dangerous yet spectacularly awesome explosive episode a couple boxes of long industrial florescent lights were thrown from the back of a truck. So it is a no-brainer that we will have run-flats on our car. It is a luxury, I understand, but this is the kind of peace of mind that we need if Erin is commuting early or late.

voor1
A “Bakkie” spills a load of textbooks on the R21 highway last fall. This is the road Erin will be commuting on and is the central road between the international airport and Pretoria. 

After learning about the run-flats being limited to these luxury vehicles, we forfeited our deposit on the Hyundai and moved on to shopping for used BMWs. Because of the price difference, we needed to look at older models with more miles, but I still feel like this is a decent trade-off as many German automobiles are designed to last much longer than their American counterparts. Meanwhile, I also started the search for the larger family vehicle. When we first learned of our placement here, I started dreaming of a manual all-terrain diesel Land Rover complete with benches, spare water tanks, and snorkel. They are everywhere in South Africa, and I knew the boys would love one as much as me.

$_20.jpg
The dream is actually a nightmare for long distance highway touring and travel. It’s loud, inefficient, and has a poorly heated/cooled cabin which can be miserable for passengers. But it looks so awesome!

On closer inspection however, they are some of the worst vehicles in terms of comfort for the kind of road trips and exploring we want to do. I know enough about myself and our habits to realize that a comfortable highway vehicle that safely and reliably gets is to and from the national parks is a smarter buy than the cool ride. Head over heart. I explored newer models like the Discovery, but couldn’t find one that was young enough and could fit in our budget. Yesterday I put down a deposit on a 2014 Audi Q7 with 68,000 miles on it. I think it will be a great vehicle for us, even if it isn’t the “Jurassic Park SUV” the boys wanted. Erin found an older automatic BMW Series 3 sedan with low-ish miles and a touch of power still left in the engine and made another deposit.

We now had vehicles and our T.R.N.s were ready, so yesterday we returned to the License Bureau in Centurion at opening only to find the following sign:

AjkS9fpKTlOM7B07BlUehw
Even when you show up at your appointed time, the offices might be closed.

At this point we had to laugh. It seems that even when you do everything right, something will still hold up the process. We went and got a cup of coffee, and Erin moved her meetings back. The usual line was established when we returned and we joined in, upper lips and all. When we got to the window, the nice woman retrieved our application from the same file cabinet she has deposited it in two weeks previous. From my point of view, nothing had been done with it or to it, I’ve been wrong before though. She started to “process it” in front of us while yelling at the woman working the window next window. She was clearly upset that someone didn’t follow some protocol. I just hoped it wasn’t us. We watched as she unstapled our applications and removed our passport photos and restyled and filed the application written in black ink on the blue form. She printed two new pages and cut to fit our photos to the box on the new sheet before using a glue-stick to affix our photos. She asked for our signatures below the photos and then our left thumb print only. We complied. Taking a piece of packing tape, she covered the photo, signature, and thumb print and handed us our TRNs. And with that we were unceremoniously approved to buy and own cars by the Republic of South Africa.

qoymc910sj22dmcdqdraza.jpg

I’m told that the next steps will involve the actual purchasing the cars, the registering of the vehicles, obtaining insurance, and having the cars pass a “road worthy” test. In terms of total time and resources used to get this point, I think we are looking at about 20-25 hours. I’m hoping that we can finish the process within the next week. We sold our Subaru’s in early February, and we have been paying for rental cars (a Ford Focus in Nashville, and a Hyundai Sonata and a Toyota Fortuner here) or using ride shares like Uber to get around. I’m ready to have a car again. An interesting note here is that the one item you don’t need to get in order to buy a car is a driver’s license. My Tennessee issued one will work just fine as long as it is valid. Can someone remind me to visit the DMV in Nashville when I return in May?

So has our experience been comical? Depressing? Absurd? All of the above? I don’t want to pass judgement on other cultures and customs and ways of functioning. The one I use to compare all of my experiences to falls well short of perfect most days, and often it struggles to even reach good enough. So when I’m witness to an exchange between people that just doesn’t sit right with me, it takes all I can to remember that “this too is water.” Awareness. Wonder. Patience.

Be good and keep in touch.

Exploring Mpumalanga

(I will have part two of the Exit Interview post coming later this week. I’m still reaching out to people and asking permission to share their stories of success. Stay tuned!)
R36 Ehlanzei
One of a million dirt roads begging to be followed.

This last weekend we took our first baby steps out into this magnificent country. I had done some preliminary research using a handy Lonely Planet guide (Thanks, Trish!), Instagram, and Google. What resulted was a two day trip east of Pretoria to the beautiful big sky country of Mpumalnaga. Think of it as Wyoming meets the Grand Canyon all at 6,000 feet. It was vast and beautiful and serene and quieter than any place I have ever been in the United States.

Okay let me step back and set this up the right way. I follow several professional runners on Instagram. They are kids compared to me, but their posts are inspiring and motivating even if I don’t end up getting out the door for my sluggish three miles around the golf estate. Over the last few months I noticed that some of the runs the South African, Swedish, and German athletes were posting took place in a town called Belfast, South Africa.

IMG_7867
More dirt that smells like sweat.

Situated roughly two hours east of Pretoria on the N4, Belfast and the surrounding dirt farming roads provide ideal conditions for distance runners: Safe, cool, non-humid conditions between 6 and 7,000 feet of altitude. It seemed like as good of a place as any to  escape from the late summer heat of the city. On Saturday morning we loaded up our rental SUV (a diesel powered Toyota Fortuner, or as the locals say “Very choice”) and headed east and up. The N4 is a fine road, mostly three lanes of well maintained blacktop. The traffic was light and the sky was the kind of deep royal blue that hints of the impending autumn. If you’ve ever driven west across Kansas, you know what I mean by headed up. The rolling hills all topped out a little higher than the previous, and without even noticing it, we climbed into high altitude.

Turning north of the N4 we followed the signs for 20 miles through some of the most beautiful country I’ve ever driven to Dullstroom, a small mountain town famous for its fly fishing. No kidding. In addition to distance running, people come here from all over the world for the size and abundance of brown and rainbow trout in local lakes. Who knew? Dullstroom also can boast of having South Africa’s highest train station at 6,800 feet above sea level. It also happened to be the location of our one night stay. Because we made excellent time from Pretoria, and because the boy were being so well behaved, we decided to call an audible and continue on to the main attractions of our trip.

The “Panorama Route” is paradoxically both a renowned and little traveled road loop through some of the most spectacular landscapes in the country. Most people opt to rush for the chance of big game viewing in Kruger further East, and they skip right over this four hour roundtrip journey. Starting in the working class town of Lydenburg (4,780ft), the R37 climbs forever up to Long Tom Pass (7,100 feet). From the pass, I’m sure we were looking out east at Mozambique roughly sixty miles away and at Swaziland just under eighty miles south. The views in every direction are breathtaking, as are the harrowing sets of switchbacks into the adventure town of Sabie. I’m talking about Tour de France level of climbing and descending.

6
The road into Sabie.

Sabie is where the fun starts though. Up to this point, most of the trip was limited to staring out the car windows. Scenic overlooks are rare, and roadside pullovers can be dangerous. But Sabie caters to thrill seekers and the local economy is entirely dependent on hikers, some white water rafting, and mountain biking. We stopped here for lunch and to fill the tank. The people were welcoming and generous. I wish we could have stayed longer in the city center for shopping. But the main reason why people come through this town though is for the waterfalls and that’s why we were here. The road from Sabie to Gaskop is 20 miles and has a dozen stops for majestic waterfalls. Being full-blooded Americans, we chose the biggest two.

The Mac Mac Falls are 215 feet top-to-bottom. The viewing platform is a distance away preventing any real concept of the magnitude of water and the fall. I think the kids would have been much more impressed if we could have travelled down to the pools below. Unfortunately for us, Thomas Link wasn’t with our tour today. Maybe next time.

Mac Mac Falls
Mac Mac Falls from the observation platform.

Farther up the road is the aptly named God’s Window. This tourist trap presides over a near vertical 3,000 foot drop that will make your stomach uneasy as you approach the viewing platform. The parking lot is a veritable United Nations of tourists and the street vendors and monkeys know it. Most of the stuff being sold here today is factory produced and a knock off of the real thing. We quickly escorted the boys past the booths with their inviting colors and sounds and head to the trail. This was the lone stop on the drive that was crowded. While I would definitely return and stare out over the continent, I would do so early in the morning or on a non-weekend day. The commanding views were almost ruined for me by the selfie sticks and jostling on the trails around the park. I could feel the resentment and the frustration tightening in my shoulders. I held my son’s hand tightly and moved too quickly. What was I doing? In places like this (and more often, everyday) I just wanted to take a minute, just a minute, and to step back from the haste of the photo opportunities and the pressures of all the little thoughts and anxieties and wants, and to do as poet Anne Sexton said.

“Put your ear down close to your soul and listen hard.”What do I need to hear before all the self-doubt and justifications drown out the voice of myself? This is why we came here. To slow down. To do some hard listening. To sit with it all. I looked out of God’s Window expecting to see the world before me, and I all I saw was myself. 

mYCPJkrJTYiihMQoc+OJlw

fneykqhtrfyfgdfaiwlu8q.jpg
The views from God’s Window.

A half-mile hike up the trail will take you further from the crowds into a cool rainforest. No, literally. At nearly 6,000 feet of elevation, the cold clouds ram into the Drakensberg Escarpment providing near constant moisture to the ridge top. This enables more than 1,000 species of plant life to thrive.

To be honest I was happy to get back in the car and continue on. I’ve never been a fan of crowds and have always enjoyed the solace of the open road. Berlin Falls is a short drive from God’s Window, but it feels like different world. A crooked sign and a dirt road any Mainer would love will take you a couple of kilometers away from the tourist buses and you will again find yourself immersed you in the quiet of South Africa. At each of these stops there is parking guard who, for a small fee of ten rand per passenger, will keep your car from losing its tires or hubcaps or luggage while you take the tour and see the sights. There is rarely any formal information about the history or natural element, but there are always people set up selling handmade goods. While you can bargain here, neither Erin nor I can ever bring ourselves to do it, and so we always pay full price for the souvenir. I know you might think we are suckers, but after the conversion you are really haggling over a piece of beaded leather or painted wood that costs $1 or $2 (R10 or R20). For us, we’d rather have an intact conscience rather than an intact wallet . Berlin Falls was no different in this regard. We bought the boys each a sling shot (which was the biggest mistake we made on the trip), and I found some other gifts for friends and family back home.

pd4yVFnWRleTmDgyP%RXKA
The solitary Berlin Falls.

As we left Berlin, I noticed how low the sun was hanging in the sky and felt a sense of urgency to get moving. Having only covered a third of the 120 kilometer route, I knew we needed to cut some of the itinerary if we were going to make it back to Dullstroom before dark. Everyone (the South Africans, the ex-pats, the waitstaff, the guy at the cell phone store) has warned me not to drive after dark. Not only is drunk driving extremely prevalent here, but crime and carjacking risks greatly increase once the sun retreats behind the horizon. Plus you also need to contend with both livestock and wild animals who happen into the road. Skipping Bourke’s Luck Pot Holes and only briefly stopping at Blyde River Canyon, helped get us back on track. Blyde River Canyon has a bit of an inferiority complex, but it shouldn’t. All the roadside signage and tour books bills the attraction as the world’s third largest canyon. The view stretches on for days and is as green and lush as any tropical forest. There is no need for the comparisons. The view from the canyon rim well earns its nickname, The End of the World.

e8298e53-2c21-4186-8095-02fdcd9daf20

We let the wheels run as we traveled down off of Drakesburg Escarpment and into the agricultural valley below. I tried to sneak some views of the lowlands, but the potholes on the roads made Nashville’s 440 feel like driving on a sheet of glass. Add to that motorcycles and the lack of enforcement on posted speed limits in this part of the world, and I can understand why vehicular deaths occur so frequently. We cruised back into Dullstroom just as the last rays of sunlight crawled up the mountains in the East. I was more than happy to park the car for the night. We found a great meal at the Mayfly Restaurant and settled in for a relaxing evening at the cabin. We all slept soundly in the dark and thin air of the mountains, although at one point I awoke to what I thought was the sound of cows outside our door. I convinced myself I was hearing things and rolled over. In the morning though Erin confirmed my experience, and as we left for breakfast we noticed the dozen or so cows camped in the garden and field next-door. Much to the amazement of our boys, we also were lucky enough to watch as a rather irate farmer drove the bulls and bovine with a switch off the lot and back up the road.

Most of the shops, as well as the Birds of Prey Sanctuary, opened late on Sundays, so after a very European pancake breakfast, we called it a trip and returned to the heat of Pretoria. I left with a sense of accomplishment and also one of excitement. If the rest of the country holds as much wonder and beauty as this one 75 mile drive, four years will not be long enough to see and experience it all. On our next trip, I really want to spend more time in Sabie and Graskop. I want to get in a long run at 7,000 feet. I want to go fishing. I’m bummed we missed the hike to Lone Creek Falls, but it will certainly be on top of the list for the next adventure.

The Big Swing, anyone? Also, I’m accepting applications for co-adventurer for a twelve or fourteen day cross-continent drive in 2020. I’m thinking Cape Town to Nairobi to Kampala to Addis Ababa probably. Let me know if you are interested.

Be good, and keep in touch.