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This Blog used to be about the question: What is Science?
Now, it asks: What is Happiness?

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Great Trek


1: Important for Foreign Readers.

South Africa is the name of a country. It is not to be confused with 'Southern Africa' and it is nowhere near Ghana.) It has 4 major exports - Good (Mandela), Bad (Apartheid), Raw (biltong) and gone AWOL (Ubuntu).
2: The Nokia widget is not online here yet as I still have no local cell data connection. I chatted to a Moor instead.

Funny how months of planning and financial shuffling can all be focussed on a single moment of panache. After googling, flight simming, chat rooming, dreaming, comparing, cogitating and vacillating for weeks about this little cycling adventure, the process kicked in today.
Having ridden round this city on a virtual Harley Davidson back in SA, I knew exactly where the Revolution Cycle shop was - just up the path from the start of the C&O Trail. This was destined to be the ritualistic start of my relationship with a new bicycle. The whole process took about 10 minutes. I strolled into the shop, smiled off all the prolifically friendly greetings that I now see as normal here in Washington, walked to the Mountain bike section and said, "That one, the Trek."

In my head, the money had already been paid long ago, so I felt like it was a freebee. Once I had decided to do this cycle in the US thing, I thought about who owed me money (which I would never have asked for if I was not going to travel, asked for it and got it....which brings some clarity to my confusion about how it is that the more I travel, the more money I have to travel, and the more I travel, the less I can work (conclusion = the less I work, the more money I make.) How's that for logic.

The cheerful chap at Revolution said the bike would be ready to rock in 20 minutes so I headed out to find a sim card for my phone but got diverted by meeting a young Moor, who is sofar the most informed person about Africa I have met here. Turns out that when his father arrived from Mauritania nobody had any idea where or what it was....and ever since then the concept of identity has been discussed in their family. We chatted about language and identity, ethnic origins and cultural roots and laughed at how in the present context I would be seen from a distance as an American and black Americans as Africans elsewhere. This was a most refreshing chat, as otherwise, I am constantly reminded of how SA simply doesn't feature on the global radar that much. I still get the cliched, 'But how can you come from South Africa, you are not black' comment. This of of course means that the actual concept of Apartheid is a non-starter if there is no sense that there are whites in Africa.

The actual start to the C&O Trail is just a stone's throw from the cycle shop so I headed onto the bridge and gazed up the Potomac in the general direction of where my cycling destiny lies.

Cycling in Washington is much the same as in Durban. Dodging cars, up and along the pavement and generally feeling like you own the place. The big difference is that there are hundreds of people doing the same as you....which of course is a bit like Nairobi.

While trying to sort out my left from my right, I met Brenda Wilson...

This delightful and spirited lady who has known the meaning of being homeless in the wealthiest nation on earth was putting her energy into supporting the passage of a Bill for Universal Living Wages (in USA) through Congress. She is passionate about the work that is done by the National Coalition for the Homeless.

Their mission is to create the systemic and atitudinal changes necessary to prevent and end homelessness. At the same time, they work to meet the immediate needs of people who who are currently experiencing homelessness or who are at risk of doing so. Today saw their 4th 'Bridge the Economic Gap Day!', which is why I met Brenda on the bridge (duh!).
There are clear parallels here between home in Africa and the USA. In SA, to reflect some Umtapo wisdom, South Africans have political freedom but not economic freedom of any significance. In the powerhouse of Africa, there are millions of starving people, not through choice. That this occurs in the USA is essentially for the same reasons as in S. Africa. The net that supports the least fortunate in our societies has holes.
But it is here that the image of a person living out of a dusty trolly in the park in Washington DC strikes a more discordant note...simply because all around it is shiny and well.

Essentially what Brenda and friends are doing is challenging those who live in a more privileged bubble to consider the universal advantages of practicing a little Ubuntu. On a practical level this could be supporting initiatives to have a support centre for the homeless in each community so that those already in distress should not have to leave their familiar environs to seek shelter or help. Realistically, Brenda added, this has to be hand in hand with measures to address the underlying causes.
Inspired by this quest for Ubuntu and seing democracy in action, I cycled off to investigate the path I will be taking in a few days time....and rode and rode and rode till sunset turned me back.
This rather pleasant scene is merely 10 minutes ride from the city. Imagine what the rest of the 184 miles is like as one heads off into the mountains!

Returning for some late night shopping, I could not help thinking that a city where the local supermarket has a self checkout machine is essentially an honest city which is probably why everyone seems so friendly and unthreatened.

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