Friday, February 6, 2009

Upward and Inward

Posted from Bloemfontein, South Africa
From Port Elizabeth we turned north, and two changes became quickly apparent. We went up and into the mountainous high country of the Eastern and Northern Cape provinces, and as we crested the first ridge the vegetation and climate changed quickly. Bush and prickly pear gave way to brown grass, termite mounds and Aloe ferox, occasionally interrupted by a green farm supported by an irrigation system. The clouds have broken up and the climate is hot and dry.
The social atmosphere has changed as well. We proceeded to Cradock, where Romano's friend Sonya had promised us a place to stay. I think Cradock has more shantytown than town, miles of it, not cobbled together from scraps but uniform shacks. There was trash everywhere, broken bottles and other garbage carpeted the landscape.
Cradock was descriptive of most of the towns we passed on our way north. The area is poor, and often towns will have little in the way of a visible economy. I wonder where everybody works. But the people are still welcoming and generous, and the area seems to be profoundly religious.
We pedaled downtown to meet Sonya at the Good Samaritan Hospice. She left us to our own devices before dinner, and we had the place to ourselves overnight.
It was Quinn who first suggested the place was haunted. The hospital had an eerie feel. It's a green building like a one-story house in the front with a two story hospital wing attached to the back. The front is cozy and smells of laundry, but the wing smells like a hospital.
Sonya offered us three beds on the second floor. Quinn quietly pointed out to the rest of us: "People die in these beds."
We ate dinner in diminishing twilight of the kitchen because the light didn't work, and heard strange noises about the place. Orian fixed the light after dinner, or so we thought.
I was making a cup of tea in the kitchen when the fluorescent bulb fell. Out of the corner of my eye I saw it hit my tea cup and crash with a characteristic pop. Glass and powder flew everywhere, filling my cup and showering me and I was fortunate not to be cut.
None of the others decided to take a bed. I chose the one furthest down the hall, between the locked doors of two mysterious rooms. Why are there so many locked doors in this building, I wondered. Dogs barked outside my open window and cats yowled, an unearthly tone that set me on edge even after I identified it.
My room appeared neglected. The bed was on rollers, accompanied by a crib full of second-hand clothes. Do babies die here too? The room is adorned with a heating unit and a sink, upon which leans an Afrikaans children's book and though the translation (The Cat in the Box) is benign, the title in Afrikaans adds to the ominous feeling: Die Kat in die Bos.
Maybe I'd be more comfortable back in the cozy front of the building, with its green and pink tile flowers, close to my friends and the utility of the kitchen and the hum and clatter of the dryer. But a bed is a bed and I put these thoughts aside and slept.
Unlike Hospice in the United States, which deals primarily with cancer patients, Hospice South Africa is consumed with AIDS patients. They offer education, HIV tests and condoms, though the dispenser in the living room which claimed "AIDS kills, use a condom" was empty. Hospice received support for antiretroviral (ARV) drugs through President Bush's global AIDS plan, said Sonya. However, the plan only lasts five years, and Hospice's future ability to get ARVs is uncertain.
But ARVs are no good if the patients won't take them. Africans infected with HIV are eligible for disability if their white blood cell count drops below 200 per micro liter, said Sonya. If they take ARVs, their count will improve and they'll lose their disability.
Cradock has an especially bad problem - a 45% infection rate - because of high prostitution rates there, said Sonya. It's on a major truck route to Port Elizabeth and is a common stopover for truckers.
"It almost seems like a war you can't win," said Quinn. The culture itself is contradictory to the potential solutions.
Sonya doesn't come off as fatalistic, though. She acknowledges the problems in a matter-of-fact way that is common in South Africa, and focuses on the challenges.
"We cannot pay the same salaries as the government," she said. "We cannot provide the same benefits. We are here for the love of the work."
We left Cradock late in the morning, planning to push through to Middleburg because we had been promised a place to stay. But the day was hot and the wind was against us and by late afternoon we were nearly exhausted.
We came over Witkransnek pass as the sun began to set and it cast a golden glow on the yellow grass that filled the valley below. Just on the far side we could see Middleburg, with dozens of mesas protruding between us and our destination. We rode quickly along the straight, down sloping road. Though our bodies craved food and rest, a tailwind combined with the cooling temperature to give us new strength.
Finally, as we rode into town, the colors started to fade. The clouds, at first yellow, turned to pink, then purple.
It's a magical time to cycle. Quinn pulled out the remnants of a bottle of whisky, but he dropped the cap so we finished the last few swallows at 20 kph in the dusk. I don't remember the last time I enjoyed whisky that much.

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