Waking up to the sound of bird calls was not something new to me, nor was it unique to any other waking event that I’d experienced anywhere in the world. Not that I can say I was really waking up- it was more a transition from a semi-lucid dream-world to a not much less lucid reality. Jet lag has this effect on people, particularly when a six hour time difference morphs into a twenty two hour red-eye flight with the added stresses of lost luggage and incompetent air-hostesses.
Even in my far-from optimum condition, my senses were acutely aware that something was not quite the same. Those bird calls were different from the ones I had gotten used to over the last eleven months. A quick, albeit blurry-eyed, glance outside the window was all that was needed to confirm these sneaky suspicions. It was the silhouette of the bird sitting on the branch of the Pincushion in front of the rising sun that gave it away – a Cape Wagtail. And then it dawned on me that the difference that my senses were registering was in fact the sounds the birds were making. Yes, the birdcall of Mr Wagtail, mixed in with the trill of the grass bird and the various other simultaneous bird calls made for a delightful chorus that can only be associated with home.
The birds that I had left behind had seasonal migration paths that did not take them as far as the remote southern tip of Africa. In fact; not even close. Trans-Atlantic flight is not a phenomenon commonly associated with our fine feathered friends and thus the melodies to which I had been waking over the last year were sounds that I had left behind in the States. Over the next several weeks, I was to discover many other differences between the two great nations, many other sensory appeals as well as cultural traits and more material artifacts that had been left behind in the Land of the Burgers and Fries. Like bad food, Thanksgiving and illegitimate children, respectively.
But seriously, to return to a pace of life that was less conducive to middle-aged heart failure was a relieving feeling. For example traffic in Slaapstad can not be compared to the eight lanes of bumper-to-bumper New Jersey traffic- even after it had been smashed by several kilolitres of Vicks sinurub, or any other de-congestant for that matter. I honestly believe that North East Americans live with a death wish. As if the traffic was not reason enough to start investing in pace-makers before their demand outstrips current supply, throw the quality of American food into the equation. All meals come standard with grease, with an option for extra grease at the cost of an additional dollar. The flip side of this coin, is that at many restaurants the menus state exactly how many calories are present in the stuff that you will ingest (I hate to call it food, Jamie Oliver would turn in his grave- if he were dead). It doesn’t matter that it has the consistency, flavour and nutrient content of cardboard, at least this food won’t make you fat (though your lifestyle probably will). You’ll probably just die of scurvy instead, which by the modern standards set by popular teenage magazines, is a far more desirable death than obesity.
Mind you, the grass is not all browner and more weeded on the other side. One thing I definitely noticed upon my return to this land of milk and honey was the amount of begging that we are subjected to here. As I’m a middle-classed white bloke, I have the God-given right to sit back and do nothing about it and rather devote the rest of this paragraph to bitching about Government. But that would be flogging a dead horse, so I’ll just refer you to every other blog written by middle classed white blokes…
The previous paragraph’s mentioning of my skin colour was an exception and used here merely as a license to slate Government. In reality, I have taken to ticking the “Other” box in the race line on administrative forms and filling in the dotted line with “South African”. In much the same way as other, more frustrated people write “Yes please” in the sex designation line. It is ironic that one of the highlights of my time in the States was watching the opening game of the Soccer World Cup. At a South African bar. With South African people.
In much the same way as I have now left behind the sound of American bird song in a time zone six hours to the West, my rendezvous to the States was completed with my heart lodged firmly in the rich South African soil six hours to the East. I know that I am not alone in this experience; on the flight home I sat next to a 60year old ex-pat who has read the Argus, the Cape Time and the Burger online every day. For the last seven years! My only sadness is that it took a year away to truly appreciate the beauty, the people and the quality of life that we are blessed with in this country. I hope that other young people living overseas will also see this before they lose touch of their South African identity and roots or get tied down abroad. And I hope that they too will return one day to aide in realizing the true potential of South Africa as a great and powerful nation.
By Bjorn von der Heyden, recently returned from a stint at Princeton University where he was doing research towards his Masters/PhD in Geology. See
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