Passionate Job Search

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Few things can leave you feeling as insecure about yourself as the job searching process. Putting yourself out there professionally is not that different from putting yourself out there on OKCupid. You want to seem confident, but not arrogant. You want someone to recognise your (what you imagine to be unique) sense of humour, but you don’t want to come across as a loose cannon that is unfocused. You want people to know your great qualities (which as you list them you realize you kind of like yourself), but you want to remain humble because you value that quality in others. Interviews are like going on a first date: you are suddenly aware of your lack of etiquette, you spend several hours deciding what to wear, you don’t want to overdo or underdo your make-up, and you are either up for commitment or you aren’t. All in all you are a constant bundle of nerves and more than once you’ve envisioned yourself cold and alone and aimless in a not too distant future.

For me this process is particularly grueling because I’m on the verge of knowing where I belong. Career-wise, region-wise, people-wise. Having grown up in a small town, worked across South Africa and then studied abroad in the USA, my first post-master’s job is meant to set everything alight for the very vague idea I have of my life. It is the shoulder boosting me into either a journalism, public relations or non-profit field. It is the boot kicking me either to Cape Town, dragging me to Pretoria or shoving me to Johannesburg. It is the pull to old friends, new friends, colleagues, community and the combination of them all.

So what is it then that I want out of this big (no-pressure, pffft, of course pressure) new job? At first it was clear that money was going to be the deciding factor this time. I don’t want to drive around extra carefully because I haven’t paid third party insurance for years. I want to eat my own sarmie at Mugg & Bean, even if the portions are unnaturally large, I don’t want to share. And I want to be able to tip more than 10%. I want to be able to pay the car guard more than R2 without thinking of how I probably won’t make the end of the month without my coins. I don’t want my stomach to make a double twist everytime the petrol price goes up. And most of all I don’t want to spend a lifetime paying my medical bills.

But, speaking of lifetimes, I find this one to be short. So, after putting on tight knee-length skirts and frilly silk shirts to show the corporate world that I can play this game too, I was bugged by an annoying voice that follows me everywhere I go. This voice is supportive and kind, but socially awkward and persistent. This voice is the sound of my passion. My passion prevented me from committing to a corporate communications position and my passion distracted me when I started googling journalism jobs. My passion is wise for its age, and I think that rubs off on me some days. So, as the recruiter asked me about my writing and editing experience, it was my passion that responded. It was my passion that elaborated on my work in climate change, in development, in human rights, in community organisation, in gender-based violence, in empowerment and in understanding the South African context. My passion was the one that put the smile on my face as we spoke. My passion put the stars in my eyes as I thought back to the days where I did research about things I cared about, when I could talk to people about what I cared about. When we could put together ideas and work work work until something somewhere started to look like a beautiful plan.

Even as I write about my passion right here, for social justice, for equality, for acceptance, for understanding, for compassion, I feel like I am in love. Blood rushes through my veins as I remember the faces I have learned and still learn from, as I remember anyone and everyone that has ever had a genuine appreciation for my work. My passion teaches me who I am. On my idealistic days I believe that those of us with this kind of passion, no matter what shape or size it comes in, are actually changing the world.

It is true, finding a job can be like finding a life partner. And in the same way that I hope to one day find passionate love, I am now hoping to find passionate work.

The Human Being Names

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The human being not only observes but names

Crucifies mountains with words because they cannot run away

They can only fight back

White pans below, are they salt or are they snow?

To the earth it doesn’t matter, they love them equally

Salt. Snow. English words that the human being decided to spit

The foam fizzing on the ground

A rabid dog conquering

Armed with mighty (s)words

“Colonise every corner, he must be named to belong to me”

Only humans would think them a he

Only humans would give them any pronoun at all

Colonise to civilise

Mark them with syllables

Strike at them with the Roman alphabet

Even the language I make love in

Has wrapped its hands around the throats of trees and rivers and people

I am not untouched by conquer

I too (have) smother(ed)

I say people have eyes because he told me people have eyes

I say a mountain has no heart because he told me a mountain has no heart

Then what are these beating stalactites and stalagmites fed by veins of water?

The mountain knows only beauty, why would I ever believe they would aspire to look like me when I so feverishly yearn to look like them?

I wink at the mountain, maybe we are friends

The mountain does not wink back

It has no eyes

Instead, the sockets in my colonizing skull are home to two dark red marble rocks.

First visit home.

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After greeting my beloved Jane, Gabby and I load my few, but increasing amount of possessions into the storage room below the cooperative house on 18th and Alder. We then jump into the dark blue minibus Gabby borrowed, to pick up Evansi from campus. I look at the clock. 15:15pm, there’s still plenty of time. We spot Evansi in front of the Noodle Head where he grabbed his vegetarian Thai lunch, and wave at him to come over. “Hey ladies!” He jumps in the back and reaches over to hug Gabby and me simultaneously. As I manage to affectionately squeeze his hand, I look at the clock again. 15:16pm. “Really? Willemien, you have got to relax,” I hear a voice in my head. Another one responds: “But if she’s late for her Portland flight, she’ll be late for her New York flight, and then she’ll be late for her Johannesburg to Cape Town flight, and then she won’t be on time for the wedding and, and, and. All that excitement for nothing. And all that money wasted!” I guess this is the extra price you pay for saving up to buy your own R15 000 ticket home.

Evansi’s voice sirens through my anxious thoughts. “Are you ready for this? I’m going to miss you!” Miss me. I haven’t even had time to think about how much I was going to miss the magnificent friends I’ve made in Eugene. Some I’ll return to in three months, but others I might actually never see again. The reality that everything is going to change now, as it has many times before, suddenly hits me. I’m speechless. I’ve always been good at running away and I’ve always been terrible at goodbyes. Few times in my life I’ve met friends like Evansi and Gabby, who, despite our very diverse backgrounds, actually get me. Respect me. Understand my beliefs. Value my opinion. Mourn with me my hardships as I mourn theirs. It’s very rare to meet friends with whom and through whom you can become each other’s rocks, each other’s pillars of strength. Friends who help you understand the meaning of strength in numbers, because numbers are what you usually had to overcome. I know how rare this is because I have a handful of them back home in SA, and I’ve never forgotten what it had felt like to leave them.

I reflect for a brief moment on all the support and kindness I’ve received lately. Last night Gabby showed up at my house with a bottle of Dandelion wine to help me pack. This morning she helped me upload and unload all my stuff, without me having to ask once. When I ever need an ear, Evans is barely a text or a Facebook message away. And I can’t even begin to describe how special Jane made my birthday for me. A music concert, a photo board, a movie, lunch and breakfast – that was only half of it. I feel as if I don’t deserve any of this. And then AhYeong, Sachi, Sarah and Jaki’s bday contributions. Can I save all of this beauty into a snowglobe and shake it up and down whenever I feel alone or lost?

Birthday photoboard from Jane!

Birthday photoboard from Jane!

I am proud of myself for learning to love and to be loved, exactly the way that I imagine Arundhati Roy wishes me to. Some days when I am confronting myself in my head, to prepare me for the conflict that I know I’ll run into in some parts of SA, I resort to my strongest argument: “All I want is to love and to be loved, is that too much to ask for?” For many it is. For many it comes with strings attached. For many it’s not enough. For me, it seems that simple.

I hug Evansi tight, I squeeze him the way only those born on African soil can appreciate. A hug of joy, of friendship, of longing, of yearning for our homes, of understanding the difficulties that come with that home, of knowing that we wouldn’t want it any other way, and of validating each other’s hopes that everything’s going to be okay. Our people will be okay, just get us back to them. I hug Gabby and I don’t want to let go. This hug says I will miss you, but it also says I have never met anyone like you. It tells her to be strong, yet it tells her to break down. It’s a hug of exhaustion, a recognition of the energy it has taken from her to deal with some of the harsh realities that only a woman of colour really knows. I wish I could give her more – more love, more strength, more hope – the kind that she deserves. But what I have left is what I’ll need for my own road ahead, and I know this is how the world works, in the end the three of us give as much as we can and preserve the rest for our own tough battles.
I want to leave them with a message to remember me by, I want to tell them that all I want is to love and to be loved. I want to explain how I find both of those extremely hard. To love – how do you do that? And how do you let yourself be loved? Yet, I don’t feel the need to say anything as I turn to walk away. They know that I love. I know that they love. It is the perfect balance.

Evansi, Gabby and me.

Evansi, Gabby and me.

On the flight to South Africa I hear tourists throwing the Nelson Mandela buzzword around like they know the man personally. I shut my eyes and breathe deeply. Please do not trivialize our history by making him a commodity? South Africa is not Mandela and it’s not the World Cup, our people have existed and lived long before Hollywood discovered we’d make a good topic for tragic or feel-good movies. Tata Madiba, I wonder how you feel about all this hype around your health. I wonder how you feel about imperialism and poverty and corruption and nation-building. Tata, is the transformation in South Africa real or are we living in an illusion of unity? And what about equality and justice? I don’t want to live an illusion, I’d prefer to call a spade a spade. Before we end up 20 years later with people who claim they aren’t racist because they’ve got ‘black friends’, or aren’t classist because they ‘totally respect people’s decisions to live in townships’, or aren’t sexist but they find corrective rape funny, and aren’t homophobic but goodness knows ‘being gay is un-African’.

At OR Tambo airport at least six black taxi drivers approach me. “Taxi ma’am?” I must look like a tourist. I am wearing an Oregon Ducks sweatshirt after all. I respond in Afrikaans, “nee dankie.” They smile at me and shout “welcome home!” and then say “but you might need a taxi, and if you do, you know where to find us.” I laugh and tell them I have one more flight to take, but ngiyabonga, salani kahle. I exchange 25 dollars for 200 rand. Out of the machine emerges a bright pink note with Nelson Mandela’s face glowing at me. “Wow!” I say. The woman behind the counter smiles, “Mooi ne?” Pretty, right? I’ve heard about our new South African cash, but I had no idea they would be so striking. Two big eyes nod back at her. Things sure change quickly, I have only been gone 10 months! Right? I laugh to myself, now Madiba literally is a commodity.

I walk to the window and look out at Johannesburg. The winter is fairly warm, but has still managed to put the land to sleep. Between the haziness I see leafless trees and white and yellow bush and grass. I see the many types of familiar faces and I remember the familiar feeling of pain of being South African – saying no to beggars who now stand on every street corner, ignoring the larger than life townships that push back like jumping castles every time they get knocked down. I sit down. I can’t live like that anymore, I have never realized how privileged I am to be able to turn a blind eye when I feel like it stings too much. Privilege, I did not understand you before I left, but now you are clear to me, as clear as the warm bed I sleep in every night. I smile to myself, they all said that the U.S. was going to change me – but they had no idea how much. I left with my hands tied, but I’m coming back with a voice.

Y’all make no mistake, Dallas makes for a good winter break!

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My first term at the University of Oregon flew by faster than a long anticipated rollercoaster ride at a very expensive theme park. The Disney World kind, where strangers have unfamiliar accents and are attracted to bright, shiny things in the same way crows are. A strange world where people get excited about taking Saturday trips to IKEA or watching presidential candidates compete for being the most convincing (or most charming) hypocrite on national television.

I found myself in a world where the lines between privilege and injustice become more blurry every day. Where, like my South Africa’s yesterdays, the words ‘terrorist’ and ‘freedom fighter’ are used interchangeably, loaded, like ‘communism’. Where young people with good intentions struggle to come to terms with the prices their country has been willing to pay in the name of who-knows-what-anymore. I have learned that there’s something strikingly beautiful about the biggest critics of colonialism coming from within one of the biggest colonizers itself.

A wet, green Eugene.

A wet, green Eugene.

I handed in my final exam with a smile, proud of the fact that I’d finally remembered to use the US Letter page on MS Word and change all my s’s to z’s and ou’s to o’s. Three months of being thrown into the deep end of media theory and a radically new school system was finally paying off. I thought back on the countless hours spent using online dictionaries and whispering to friends in class “What’s Honey Boo Boo?” or “Who’s Hubert Humphrey?” Information overload is an understatement. Imagine watching Oliver Stone’s The Untold History of the United States every single day for ten weeks. It is a pretty sight. To me, at least. I realized the best part of living in the USA is my inability to conform to the social norms because I’m still not sure what they are. For this reason, I had completed all my assignments with thought. And heart. Even though everything around me had changed and is still changing, I still have heart. That piece of me remains, no matter where I go.

I felt sad saying hurried goodbyes to the good friends I’d made in Eugene for winter break. The anticipation of a holiday in Texas with my South African childhood friends kept me going through many late nights of studying. After a week of fine-combing the streets of Portland, I finally boarded the eagle freeing me into the Dallas sunshine. Which is exactly what greeted me – a 75 degree high miracle. Mo, our Iranian taxi driver and friend, awaited me in Dallas with a minibus that looked surprisingly small among the gigantic Texan pick-up trucks.

Stumptown Coffee, Portland with Jane Lin

Stumptown Coffee, Portland with Jane Lin

As I admired the dry, open fields that remind me of South Africa’s Limpopo Province, I listened to Mo tell me about why Texas is the best state in the US. “The people here are friendly. The houses are big. You can live a good life here in Dallas.” I agreed. I wasn’t going to go into the details of what I consider to be a ‘good life’. “This is where Kennedy got shot, you know,” Mo said, his chest out in respect of the former president. “But Reagan, he’s the real hero in Texas.” He cleared his throat, and mumbled. “Me, I don’t really agree.” I just nodded and smiled. One does not simply talk about politics in the USA.
As far as I could tell, Mo hadn’t seen his children in 15 years. He can’t return to Iran because he’s considered a ‘traitor’. He told me his story twice and I still couldn’t quite understand why he’d been in the US Air Force. I sighed. There is no country without some kind of bloody history. I know, because when I got home I actually Googled it.

The best thing about spending the festive season with the kids that saw you grow from a cornrow-toothed booger eater to an out of hand teen to a very dynamic young lady, is that you can relive all those memories in your home language. You can crack a joke in Afrikaans. You can tell them how much you miss your family in Afrikaans. For a few weeks I could simply talk without thinking. We could laugh together about how weird it is that Americans destroy their bacon by making it crispy, how there’s almost always bottomless coffee or sodas in restaurants, how Walmart is both the most exciting and the most traumatic thing we’ve ever experienced. We can giggle about people laughing at us for constantly clutching our wallets in crime paranoia. We can mock each other for our poor attempts to drive on the right side of the street. And, for actually using the word ‘mock’ when no-one around us does anymore.

On Christmas Eve we tried our hand at Secret Santa. Of course, even before our tree went up, we’d already figured out who our Santas were. South Africans aren’t bribe shy. We awoke on Christmas Day to a White Christmas. No jokes, real snow in Dallas. The white layers of flurries hurt our eyes, but we couldn’t resist baring our teeth to something so magically unfamiliar. We built a snowman and gave him a Dallas Cowboys cap that we picked up in the street when the purple and white team had lost the day before. By the time we’d found it a reasonable length of tree branch arms, our hands and feet were numb and we warmed up with a glass of Malbec in front of the fireplace. “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas…” I sang softly.

Dallas Cowboys snowman

Dallas Cowboys snowman with Marjonell van Deventer

During the final two weeks of winter break, we decided to switch to tourist mode again. Our first stop: the Stockyards in Fort Worth where I think I had my first encounter with cowboys and a traditional Native American. In front of the countless curios stores selling leather boots and hats, the Native American charged $5 to take a picture of him. Passers-by whispered that “he didn’t even look real.” Of course I could not tell them that he was or was not, because culture in the modern day US confuses me as much as the next person. We walked past saloons and museums and the cowboys’ Hall of Fame. We watched a cattle run (which my friend referred to more likely being a ‘cattle crawl’) and stared in amazement at the enormous longhorn bulls roaming the streets. Fort Worth was buzzing with energy, locals and tourists experiencing a snippet of historical Texas together.

Longhorn bulls in Fort Worth, Texas

Longhorn bulls in Fort Worth, Texas

We visited a few museums and attended the Chinese Lantern Festival a few days later. The delightful lanterns were carefully crafted with anything from cotton materials to glass urns to porcelain plates. Lotuses bloomed in front of my very eyes, dragons slithered past me, and panda bears chewed on bamboo while carrying their babies on their backs. I imagined myself in a fairytale several times that night.

Chinese Lantern Festival

Chinese Lantern Festival

A highlight of the break was the three mile art walk in Downtown Dallas. Three miles of appreciating tall modern buildings, old European-like hotels, churches and historically significant structures gave us a real sense of the city of Dallas. A beautiful city, which I had surely underestimated. Our walk ended off with an hour long meditation inside the Crow Museum, which contains aisles and aisles of ancient Asian artifacts and ornaments.

As I mentally prepare myself for my trip back to Eugene and the start of a new term, I look back on the holiday with a smile. Benihanas and Chilis came close to being as good as the dark chocolate cake we baked for Christmas Eve. Our basketball outings were almost as good as watching the Ducks win the Fiesta bowl. And our line-dancing was almost as good as our wine-induced confessions on New Year’s Eve. Winter break – even though at times I wished I could’ve been with my family and friends in sunny South Africa –you were a team player. Thank you for showing me that I can do this, and that I’m ready to go back to Eugene to learn how to change the world.

Lights, Camera, Action: It’s Election Time

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My first taste of partisan media in the United States was in the endless customs queue which I had just committed myself to when I arrived at JFK International Airport in New York. I don’t remember the names of the stations or of the perfect beauty-contestant anchors, but I do recall the bright blue, red and white lights flashing across the screen several times. Each time I assumed they were covering a breaking news story – the hype was so huge – but I kept being disappointed. It was simply a political statement by some politician that was either being attacked or endorsed. On the attack front, I was startled. I had never before seen a media outlet blatantly choose sides in an election and I kept turning my head, trying to catch people’s attention: “Are they allowed to say that?”

Within a few weeks I realised that this had only been an introduction to a game that somewhat resembles a circus. On lawns across Eugene people hammer their signposts of support, right below a metre by two metre USA flag. Television, radio, internet – every form of communication in the US has become a political warzone, on the stage of Chicago or some sultry musical production. People even politically affiliate food – “a cup of Obama or Romney for you today mam?” In Eugene it’s likely you’ll get a discount for choosing the blue.

I’ve struggled to comprehend it. It reminds me of some of the protests during COP17, in which some of the people (obviously not all) would blindly mass rally for a cause they had very little understanding of. Because I realized that I actually had very little understanding of US politics, I decided to watch the second debate between Obama and Romney (the one in which Green Party leader Jill Stein, whom I of course had never heard of, wasn’t allowed to participate). Live tweeting my fingers numb, the answers as to why Americans on the West Coast were almost obsessively engaged in politics, dawned on me: US politics is so important, because the issues at hand are so important. In fact, somehow, the States have managed to politicise almost all the important social issues a country could face.

As a South African, I was completely baffled that a first world country was still debating over issues such as contraception, abortion, social health care, equal pay for equal work, gay marriage and student loans. Most of these issues were resolved in my country many years ago. Culturally there are some conflicting views, but at least constitutionally South Africa protects the right of women, children and homosexuals and so many other groups who need the support of their country.

In the US, it is viewed (or potentially it is so) that casting a vote for a single party can either allow a woman to practice her rights over her own body, or not – and it blows my mind. I might not know a lot about the historical or current state of politics here, but I do know that the system is not going to be easy to change. In fact, I sometimes wonder if one man, essentially Obama in the eyes of hopeful Democrats, can affect the system at all? Does congress have too much power?

I always refer to Africa as the Continent of Hope, because despite the ongoing poverty, civil wars and social injustice it faces, there is always hope.African countries provide a system which can be changed, or in which revolutions can take place. Is there the same hope for the US? And is it that hope that keeps people debating, keeps them glued to their favourite TV channels and keeps them voting? I definitely have a lot more to learn about this country and my view on the current election might be completely wrong, but I do know a thing or two about inequality. And Obama and Romney, neither of you want to widen that gap.

Eugene: A safe place is a nice place.

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My alarm clock (remember those?) goes bonkers. Spiralling back to earth from a deep sleep, I am fooled and think it’s the screaming of a hadeda waking me. I jump up when I realise it’s the alarm, signalling 07:00 in big bright red electronic numbers. “You’re lucky!” I whisper to the imaginary hadedas whose absence I’m slowly but surely starting to miss. The closest thing to a fairly annoying creature that ruins your sleeping patterns in Eugene is a squirrel. In fact squirrels are the closest things to anything annoying, because they seem to be severely overpopulated here.

I remember being elated out of my mind seeing them in Stellenbosch the first time. Now I’m reaching that point where when they startle me, I respond by saying “go watch Ice Age or something!” That’s how many squirrels there are in Eugene. And why wouldn’t there be?  I’ve never seen so many big beautiful trees come together in one place. Eugene is green. Oregon is bright green. So green that Apple accidentally portrayed a whole urban area in Portland as being a park on one of its map functions. That’s how green it is in Oregon.

I get dressed, finish a cup of Pear and Kiwi flavoured green tea – while listening to Blink 182 (what can I say? Just trying to feel at home!) – and head out to the garage. I’m going for a bike ride. Eugene is a bike town. People adore their bikes and there are safe bike routes all across town. The University of Oregon’s Outdoor Program even has an ‘Appreciate Your Bike Day’. That’s how much people adore their bikes in Eugene.

I ride to 24th avenue and then turn down to Hilyard, towards Sundance Market, where I currently do my food shopping. I feel weird for not wearing a seatbelt, and at the same time I’m thrilled by the wind playing with my hair, pulling at my shirt and pushing fresh air down my lungs. I could get used to this. Inside, I have no idea what half the products mean. Hemp bread? Almond butter? Tofu burger patties? People in Eugene are very health conscious. The University of Oregon’s recreation centre is free for students. People walk, bike and run everywhere and eat mostly organic food. They even have quinoa pasta at Sundance. That’s how health conscious people are in Eugene.

I ride further down into Amazon Park, where I sit down on the grass in the sunshine to enjoy the gourmet pasta salad Sundance has just made for me. Children on bikes ride by, students with backpacks walk by, dogs play fetch with their owners, while I enjoy the peace and quiet. People walk up to me and tell me they like my Don’t Kill Africa shirt and ask me where I’m from. I tell them South Africa, they want more, I give them more and I give them what they want to hear. Oregonians are friendly. Citizens walk several blocks with you when you get lost. Strangers talk to you on campus, at street corners and markets. Strangers ask and talk and ask and talk, and mostly conversations end up in nothing meaningful. That’s how friendly people are in Eugene.

I attend class right in the middle of campus, in Fenton Hall. On my way back home I get sidetracked by the live band performing in the amphitheatre in front of the Erb Memorial Union building. On my way back again, I get sidetracked by the Climate Justice League meeting and then again by the African Student’s Association members inviting me to its latest event. Campus is alive, and it’s getting late. My friends say not to worry, Eugene is a safe place. I worry, it’s already dark. I consider taking a taxi, but I’m told not to worry. I start walking, up University Street. I walk all the way home, fearless, unharmed. That’s how safe it is in Eugene.

I never really thought about how an unsafe environment limited some of your opportunities until now. Perhaps we’ve adapted to crime in South Africa to such an extent that we forgot there are places with much less of it – there is a possibility of a more peaceful world for us, I don’t know how, but we could make that happen!

Oregon: Right on Track

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“Train 14 for Seattle is now boarding” I hear over the loudspeaker. I slowly arise from the bench in Oakland station, swing my backpack on my back and pick up my laptop. I haven’t let them out of my grip for the past hour – everything I know is in here, and everything I own is in my checked-in luggage. I walk onto the Oakland platform, a cool breeze chills my teeth that show because I just can’t seem to stop smiling. Nervously, but broadly. I’ve been waiting for this day. I touch my cheeks at the spots where they now hurt. Maybe I’ll grow dimples? The conductor scans my ticket and allocates me an upstairs coach seat. “Are you going to Seattle?” he asks. “Eugene. I’m going to Eugene,” I mumble, struggling to believe myself. “Oh to the university? Well welcome aboard!”

We leave around 22:30 and I catch some shut-eye while it’s dark. In the early morning I want to be fresh to enjoy the sights. And my oh my, what sights awaited me! After a few hours of drifting in and out of sleep, I’m woken by shadows stroking my face. I jolt upright, frightened. I look out of the window to my right to see giant dark tall shapes towering above the train. “Trees!” I shout, my nose and palms flat on the window. “So many of them,” I say, turning to the girl seated next to me. She smiles and giggles as she tries to hush me, not everyone was awoken by the alighting of the passing forest. “They’re just… they are… Wow,” I whisper. As the sun rises the gigantic trees begin to look gentler until finally they almost smile at me, sincerely kind.

A photo of the North California/ Oregon trees taken from the Amtrak

The forest denses as we clickety-clack along. I take my seat in the viewing cart – which seats you sideways to admire the view – with a cup of strong coffee in hand. Kilometres and kilometres of long far-reaching tree branches with small pointy leaves jump up in front of me, some more distant, others almost right in my face. My mind wanders. What kind of creatures could be living in there? Deer, squirrels, fairies? Such a thick gathering of bark isn’t conventional enough to host conventional organisms. This is the kind of forest great authors such as JRR Tolkien uses as a setting for magical beings to embark on adventures in. I squint, hoping to spot something supernatural next to the graceful flow of the pitch black river, but the only interruption of the lush dark green is yellow wild flowers. There’s something about moving, life-giving cold water. Bubbling energy, heading for an ancient destination, giving life to ancient organisms, trees and grass, even though they’re all brand new. Ahead, a mountain slowly appears behind the forest. The mountain top is white, ice-capped. “We’re near the Oregon border now,” a fellow passenger says aloud.

About five hours later we start to close in on Eugene. I hardly believe my eyes, but the trees are taller and greener, and yes, even happier. Big lakes peer at us from around every corner. The area reeks of both fertility and adventure. I feel pins and needles all over my body – I fall in love with my surroundings. Seeing the big river flowing below an open sky, separated only by a line of evergreens, suddenly overwhelms me. Why does one get so emotional when immersed in a stunning natural scene? Such a beauty makes you want to laugh and cry at the same time – over every heartache and heartbreak you’ve ever experienced, and over the strength that got you through it. The outskirts of Eugene and most of Oregon is beautiful enough to caress my soul, heal all my inner wounds right into my very DNA, and right into my previous generations.

My new landlady, Brenda, awaits me at the train station and shows me around town on our way home. Eugene is bright green and sunny on this day, filled with interesting places – mostly organic restaurants and markets and bike shops. The streets are broad and the wooden houses all either have wind chimes or homemade art proudly decorating their entrances. We pull up to a double-storey house, painted a soft grey, rounded off with perfect clean white window sills. In the lush garden tall pine trees shoot up high, higher than I can see without closing my eyes for the shimmering sun. “This is it?” I ask in disbelief. Brenda smiles and nods. “Oh Brenda it’s gorgeous,” I say as I rush up the stairs. It’s an open plan house, with wooden floors and walls and vast big windows. Everywhere I look is either bright sunlight or a view of the bright green garden. I open the door to the garden and our cat jumps in. “That’s Miko. She’s a sweetheart,” Brenda laughs as she picks up the giant ball of grey fur. “By the way, there are vegetables and herbs planted outside – take whatever you need.” She points me in the direction of my white-walled room. Inside, a world map and a poster of South Africa with giraffes on it beam at me. Perfect. I look up at the roof. A window! I jump for joy, but only slightly. I am from Thabazimbi after all.

My house in Eugene

I put on my running shoes, ready to go for my first jog through the clump of trees (or as I like to call it, the mini-forest) behind my house. As I reach the top of the hill and manage to drag myself away from the juicy blackberries, I notice that I’m running through a Masonic Graveyard. I walk around, feeling like I’m either in a vampire movie, or somewhere truly significant, respectful. The dates on the gravestones go back to the 1800s. I jump over tree trunks and spiderwebs and land right in front of the most significant grave I could find in this town: that of Eugene Franklin Skinner. I’m surprised, the founder of Eugene, the man who erected the first cabin in this area – where now the renowned University of Oregon is located, the university giving me a chance of a lifetime – is buried right behind my dreamy house. I stand up and smile peacefully as I look downhill. A slight haze rests softly on top of millions of pine trees and the sun has started to set somewhere between them. I run home, feeling great. Tomorrow I’ll explore Eugene – the people, the stadiums, the markets, the vintage shops, the Duck Store and of course the University of Oregon. Tomorrow I’ll explore my new home.