The nothing of nothing

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People ask me when I will start writing again. I smile back at them, my smile without the eyes. The type of smile you play when you are at a party pretending to enjoy yourself, but you find yourself going to the bathroom for 2 minutes, then 5, then 10, then 15 until finally you don’t have the guts to emerge from solitude. The type of smile that says I will most likely never write again because apart from the physical pain in my wrists, upper arms, and shoulders, there are no words. There is mostly nothing. My brain is like the winds of Cape Town nudging, hitting and pushing at the waves below it. The sky is dark and the faint cries of seagulls are barely heard over the sound of the quiet storm. There is my mind echoing against itself midst a sky of bare, vulnerable, emptiness. An overwhelming sense of nothing – a fearful nothing – rains down my spine, crashes into my toes and fingertips and makes me unable to move. I am now possessed.

As my big eyes stare back at you longingly, for hopeful moments and future plans, you can tell that I’m lost. My body and my soul is overcome with darkness and I can move only when it tells me to, I can speak only when it tells me to. I am the owner of my body no longer. For the most part I sleep. I am exhausted by my own existence. I fight to get up to pee. I am vulnerable. I am even embarrassed. There are days when you see me laughing, and you think that I am back. She has finally returned to herself. But the darkness punishes me for fighting back – as most anyone with depression can tell you, with every high comes a deep, unbearable low. Such is the struggle of the depressed, shall we fight for happiness and deal with that backlash of being swiftly sucked hollow, or shall we accept the empty, the dark, and try not to disturb it?

Depression will kick you when you are down, it has empathy for no-one. Instead, it feeds off of your heightened levels of empathy. When in a low, the pain of the world is overwhelming. The pain of your own life is overwhelming. The fear of more pain in the world is overwhelming. The fear of more pain in your own life is overwhelming. Every death, every abuse, every neglect, every tragedy – including your own – knocks you over with a powerful punch in the face. You are everyone in that accident, you are every woman in that shelter, you are every child in that hospital. This is how your depression keeps growing inside you like damp on the bathroom walls.
Every resolved or unresolved issue in your life comes to haunt you and those ghosts whisper terrifying ideas in your ear. They tell you that your life is snowballing and that everything will slowly but surely become worse for you. They tell you that you will never thrive, never succeed, never again be able to strive for your dreams. They tell you that you might as well press Exit now, because there is no reason for you to carry on. Perhaps they tell you your weight is too heavy to carry, perhaps they tell you that you will forever carry it alone. Whatever it is that your ghosts tell you, they have the advantage of being closer to you than anything that gives you strength. They are in your mind, they roam freely and they create chaos like wasps in a wild beehive. It is more than just a game to haunt you, it is how they survive. It is how they remain a part of you. They have their own fear, and that is that you will let go of them.

Depression stalks you like the prey of a glorious cheetah in the Bushveld. It waits, waits, waits until you slip up, until you don’t pay attention, until you give it that gap. I feel like I am always on the edge of a mountain. I am always ready to fall. Or jump? It simply depends on how hard the wind blows. Or how many winds blow at the same time. Can you imagine planning your future when you constantly feel like you are at the end of your life? Sometimes at the end of the life you’ve known, sometimes just at the end of life itself. In these moments I want to escape, sometimes the life that I’ve known, sometimes just life itself. Escapism is tragic. We find it in alcohol, exercise, romantic relationships, drugs, health disorders, suicide. Without it, there are moments that we simply cannot face being alive. We are in a constant state of fear of how low we can go and how long we can stay there.

I believe my depression is linked to some level of consciousness. Perhaps those critical thinking skills or my search for the bigger picture have been to my detriment. Now that I see the world for what it is, I find it hard to imagine that it is worth living in. For me, trauma has been a reality. Spending decades on healing from abuse and rape has taught me strength, but it has also taught me that the pain of the world is very real. And at least once in your life you reach a moment when you realise that such pain is perhaps too real. How you react to that moment is all you have. When a person with depression tells you that they are tired, no exhausted, it’s because fighting for this life is hard work. We have to sift through sadness and fear to find moments of hope. Not only moments of hope we have for our future, because they are sometimes impossible to find, but we have to delve into the toughest moments of our lives and find the grains of courage that pulled us through. We have to remember what they felt like, how we used them, why they even existed for us at that point. It is very easy to get frustrated with a depressed person, because there is much in life to be thankful for. Life itself is a gift. But depression makes you forget. Depression is a long and exhausting war against yourself, and sometimes the touch of another human hand is the most powerful weapon we need.

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!