A week in Wanderland


A week in Wanderland

DOMINIQUE BOTHA visits the US with her family and realises that every country is a broad church, united by its differences.


The journey there

MY twin boys, let's call them Castor and Pollox, slam-dunked their matric. An obsession with basketball pervades even their vocabulary. My husband, let's call him our point guard, knows a good-hearted South African made good in America who magics up tickets to some games.

For the twins it is the once-in-a-lifetime apotheosis of all their aspirations. I go along to watch them watch basketball. Their American dream: NBA and $1 pizza slices. For our eldest son, recently graduated with a degree in pure maths (let's call him Rain Man): spotting fat people. A love of statistics runs in the blood. I gingerly propose a visit to a Frida Kahlo exhibition. “Why would anyone want to see a woman with a moustache?" the twins want to know.

America immediately conforms to expectations. Everyone is extremely friendly. In the immigration hall, a morbidly obese man comes trundling past in a mobility scooter. The boys are thrilled. Other than playing fat people cricket I am shoehorned into a game of Fuck. Marry. Kill.

“Donald Trump, Oupa or Stalin. Come on, Mom, you have to choose."

I put in noise-cancelling earphones and dive into YouTube. Like Walt Whitman, like America, like every one of us, it contains multitudes. The algorithm offers up the Austrian vagrant. Hitler was never elected by the Germans, says Martin Amis. They found him unbelievably vulgar. Foaming at the mouth. King of the sadists. He used democracy then immediately banned it. The people Hitler hated the most were the Germans. He wanted the army of rapists from Russia to vanquish them. The Greeks knew 2,000 years ago that democracy degenerates into tyranny. Most voters are stupendously ignorant.

Perhaps democracy is like a game of Fuck. Marry. Kill. There are no appetising options. But you have to choose.

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Days 1-3: Charlotte, North Carolina

We wake up too early in a city with a girl's name and trundle down her blossoming boulevards. Charlotte dispenses with her dirndl and blonde plaits in the city centre and puts on titanium heels. The spring sunshine is benign, the time zone less so. Our point guard consults whatever it is that he consults on his iPhone to guide us to the best coffee in town.

The last time I had jet lag was 20 years ago in Australia, where I first saw the model cities of the Congolese artist Bodys Isek Kingelez at a biennale. He spent his whole life in a walled compound in Kinshasa, constructing enchanting prototypes of imaginary cities out of cardboard and bits of scrap, in poignant counterpoint to the squalour of his surrounds.

In his Ville Fantôme and Cité de la Futur he was the Baron Haussmann of a fictional Kinshasa. Hopefully somewhere in a posthumous alternate universe he is thriving, with the legion d'honneur pinned to his blazer and Schools of Tropical Futurism celebrating his legacy.

You can avoid art galleries, I want to tell the boys, but aesthetics need tending, like fruit trees and democracy. Like a beautiful room, a beautiful city can make you a better version of yourself. Or at least feel like one. Cecil John Rhodes may have been a doos but he understood the spiritual uplift of an elegant enfilade. He enabled Herbert Baker with his chequebook and the botanical gardens arose. Also UCT. And the Union Buildings. And Languedoc, the prettiest model village in South Africa that no-one knows about, commissioned a century ago to lure Karoo folk to the Drakenstein valley to plant peaches and pears.

At last a coffee shop opens and we join the queue. Up ahead stands a supersized white man ordering a supersized flat white. He is the tallest human being I have ever seen. The boys have all the facts at the ready. He plays for the Boston Celtics, they whisper. Kristaps Porziņģis. Men over 7 foot are exceedingly rare. There are only about 3,000 of them in the world. Very tall men have about a five in a million chance of making the NBA. If you are over 7 foot, your chances are one in six. The friendly Latvian giant graciously accedes to a photo, and like an optical illusion skewering perspective, makes our 6-foot boys look like toys.

Fortified with coffee and statistics, we wend our way to the 16,000-seat rotunda for the first game of the series. The atmosphere is festive, more like entertainment than war by other means. There is an MC and dancing girls and huge screens and music to accompany the play. Americana on full volume. The gladiators stride onto the court long-limbed, languid and lightning fast. There is a master race. And it dominates the NBA.

At halftime the court is given over to entertainers specialising in the impalement arts. The human target of the blade thrower is a luscious blonde in leathers and high heels. He hems her in with knives and axes, and in the finale shoots a crossbow at an inflating balloon clenched between her lips, all the while with his back to her and filming the scene on his cellphone. It's practically a snuff movie, but with a happy ending. Murder averted, we turn to a buffet of fried chicken sliders, hot dogs, macaroni cheese and litre cups of Coke.

The twins turn to me, beaming.

“Mamma, our life has peaked. "

Days 3-5: New York City

We fly from sunny Charlotte to New York, where the famed skyline is erased by rain.

“Where are we staying?" asks Rain Man.

The Meatpacking District.

“Is that really what it's called?" he laughs. “Gnarly."

The Uber driver from Pakistan warms to us because he worships AB de Villiers and a barrage of sports talk ensues. Cricket is his north, his south, his east and west, his working week and Sunday rest. It's all fixed though, he tells us. All fixed? I am perplexed. “Why do you watch it then?" He gives me an exasperated stare in the rear-view mirror.

Once we get to the hotel I order more coffee. Rain Man shows me a diagram of spiders' webs spun on different drugs. Caffeine is worse than crack.

The rain pelts down with Arctic ardour.

A new game is on offer. Fun facts.

My offering is a word. Apricity. The warmth of the sun in winter.

“Lame, mom."

I venture another. “It once rained for a million years."

“Not lame, mom. "

Coffee arrives and the agenda for New York is negotiated. More basketball and hamburgers. Groan. Democracy sucks when you are a minority. First port of call, the NBA shop on 5th, that endless shithole avenue full of chain stores. The boys want to buy a pair of basketball shoes for TJ, the Zimbabwean they met shooting hoops in Cape Town. He lives in a stormwater drain to save on rent and sends money home to pay for his younger siblings' education.

Taking an Uber in New York is a carousel ride with the United Nations. This time our driver is one of the lost boys from Sudan who landed here at 15. He goes home often and plans to retire there. The dollar is his magic carpet.

After five minutes in the NBA store, my will to live weakens. Then nature calls. “Sorry ma'am, we have no facilities. Try Barnes & Noble next door." I leave my merry band of philistines and go down the escalator, back into the street, battling the crowds and scaffolding and rain, and try my luck at the bookstore. I scope every floor with increasing urgency until I find a guard policing the entrance to the ladies and gents. “You can't enter," he tells me happily. A sheltered employment sadist. “You have to buy something first, then your purchase will generate a code which gives access to the facilities."

I look around, pull a New Yorker magazine off the rack and rush back with my invoice. The guard smiles at me triumphantly. “The ladies' facility is now closed for cleaning."

How long must I wait?

“Hard to tell, at least half an hour."

One New Yorker article then. In a relatable anecdote I read about the famed Russian novelist Vasily Grossman’s heroic reportage and private defeats.

“And, though Grossman survives that night, he is soon brought low again, this time after partaking of vodka and spicy pepper at a village wedding. On the long drive home he realises that the alcohol has played havoc with his bowels. He is too shy to ask his hosts to stop along the open road, yet he understands that he can’t possibly make it home without disgracing himself. Then, at the moment of extremis, the driver stops in a garage for oil and Grossman hurries to a toilet. It was, he winkingly reflects, a miraculous piece of good fortune:

“I remembered a Moscow writer who disliked me. He had once said that he looked on losers as a pathetic breed, and that I myself, in his opinion, was a typical loser — a typical example of the eternal literary loser. He must have been wrong, I thought. After all, what had just saved me from catastrophe was a stroke of extraordinary good luck."

I shut the magazine and decide to beg. Before death, the bladder is the great leveller. Let me use the men's loo. He relents. The relief is so great that I can see the guard for who he is. No longer a loser but an honourable man.

The sun comes out. There is the scent of magnolias in bloom. And I am granted a joint visit to the Museum of Modern Art. We only have to go to one floor, I promise the boys. Just to see the Käthe Kollwitz retrospective, but I manage to sneak them past Picasso, Dalí and Van Gogh. By the time we get to Jackson Pollock they balk.

“No mom, this is a violation."

I concede.

The next day

I leave the boys to the Apple store and walk to the Whitney Museum of American Art along the High Line. Hemmed in by glinting glass and tulip beds like Croxley boxes of freshly sharpened pencils, a docile citizenry ambles along in single file, elated to be in proximity to plants. Even fake ones, like the fibreglass tree sculpture painted a radiant coral.

The Whitney Biennial aims to “probe the unfolding moment" and other fatuous abstractions. I don't have the stomach for this sort of nonsense any more. At least there are toilets.

I abandon the exhibition and rendezvous for coffee with an old friend who has lived in New York for more than 20 years. He found exile in America less suffocating than England. It's more like Africa, he says. There is real wilderness. His heart was broken by the new Zimbabwe's determination to die at its own hand. There is a bit of “Wednesday's child is full of woe" about him. Fair enough. He lost his country and his vocation. He has watched climate change in real time in the journalism industry, he tells me. There is no longer a role for the swashbuckling reporter at large in foreign climes. There is no more appetite for a white man from Africa writing about Africa.

All that is left to him is an abject intimacy with a sensitivity reader scouring his memoirs for thought crimes.

“For fuck's sake, you were a soldier in a bush war, can't you tell your sensitivity reader to go to hell?" I say.

He smiles. “When I first came to New York, the druggies and transvestites and writers lived here because it was cheap. We all used to eat together in the diner across the road. Of course I am not allowed to call them transvestites in my book, although that is what they called themselves. It's not the transvestites that take offence. It's the young kids working in the publishing houses."

Something resembling the Hindenburg comes floating by. It is advertising Dick’s House of Sport. In a sudden twinge of homesickness I am reminded of the small plane that flies across Cape Town on Friday afternoons trailing a banner for Mavericks, the strip club.

In Johannesburg, the strip clubs splay their metaphors across massive billboards.

A personal favourite: a photo of a tiny frog sitting on a giant lily pad. The strap line: Welkom in die Paddadys.

Last day in New York

My beloved chooses to accompany me to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The first thing that greets you is a colossal 3,000-year-old Pharaonic statue carved from granodiorite, on loan from Germany. Each cartouche contains hieroglyphs so beautifully excised that the craftsmanship evokes awe across a chasm of three millennia.

My reverie is interrupted by my brother the mielie farmer, who does not make social calls. I assume something is wrong, so I answer. I am wrong. He is in a happy mood, despite his battles against the weather and bureaucracy, for he has a small victory that he wants to share.

He has finally managed to get his farm implements relicensed.

At first he was told that documents could no longer be processed because the licensing department had no budget to buy paper. He would nevertheless be fined for not renewing the licence disks. However, when he offered to go to the Spar and buy paper they were happy to help. Perhaps the Viljoenskroon traffic department is entering a pre-Egyptian age, a time before papyrus and clay tablets.

The Met is a palatial repository of treasures. Incan pottery, French faience, medieval psalters with bindings of gem-encrusted sculpted ivory, romantic sarcophagi, a captivating painting by Balthus the paedophile. A whole room designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

My mother went on an AFS scholarship after school and spent a lonely year in a small town outside New York in 1963. On Sundays she would take the train into Manhattan and find solace in the paintings in the Frick. All the way across the world, through the sepia gloom of the Wright room, the long fingers of Ma's melancholy reach out to me.

Mothers don’t always realise they are responsible for climate change in their families. Their sorrow cools the earth, like Persephone did in her absence, turning the world to winter.

When we exit the museum, everyone is out on the streets. A solar eclipse is imminent.

We climb into an Uber. Where are you from, the driver wants to know. He sounds Russian but won't admit it. From South Africa, says my husband. “And how things going there?" My husband smiles. “It has its problems."

“Problems?" the driver scoffs. “Everybody got problems. Your health is the only thing that matters. Don't worry about the rest. You owe the bank money? Let the bank worry, not you."

He disapproves of the office workers crowding the streets to watch the solar eclipse. “You can see it better on television later. Just wasting time staring at the sky."

As we glide down the West Side Highway alongside the Hudson, the quality of the light shifts. An amber tint briefly settles across the city, as if Wright has placed a filter over the sun.

At Pier 86, we drive past an aircraft carrier so enormous that you could load the whole of Viljoenskroon onto its flight deck. A warship converted into a maritime war museum. This is where my father would spend every waking hour if he were here. Not sport. Not paintings. Machines.

New York is a broad church.

Flying home

In the seats behind me, Rain Man and the twins sleep the sleep of the just. Magies vol, ogies toe. Travelling is like childbirth; you quickly forget how horrible it is and do it again. To kill time, I scroll through crap on the in-flight entertainment system. David Attenborough's breathless enthusiasm is infectious. Some palaeolithic monster fossilised in the cliffs of Dover. Purported to be the greatest predator ever to roam Gondwanaland. They test the gigantic, striated teeth on ballistic gel, a scientific substance designed to simulate human flesh. Gnarly.

As we enter South African airspace, I finish the New Yorker article on Vasily Grossman.

Grossman explains that the compelling concept of a people bound by defining national traits slides easily into ethnic caricature; and caricature is more than a literary sin — it is the pretext for the 20th century’s totalitarian abuses. And again, with an obstinacy that is all the more beautiful for being hopeless, he affirms the humanist ideal of a world united by its differences.

Like a family and a city, a country is a broad church. United in our differences, with everyone invited to the ball. To the democratic jol. To the political partying. Sometimes paperless. Often motherless.

Welkom in die Paddadys.

♦ VWB ♦

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