The old truck: built sometime in the 1950s this bad boy makes for quite an adventurous ride. Firstly, the door handles are broken off so just to get in the car you need pliars and some patience while you work the latch just right so that the door slips open. Next, just to get the thing started, we tie a chain to the frame and then attach the other side of the chain to a tractor or truck. Very carefully we pull the old truck via the chain while holding down the clutch and pushing the gas half way down in an attempt to jump start the ancient engine. After a minute or so the truck jumps to life and shoots forward. This is where precision driving is a must, otherwise we would shoot forward and launch into the car pulling us. The two cars must then be coordinated to slow down and stop at the exact same speed. If the old truck goes too fast, it will crash into the car in front, but if it goes too slow and gets jerked by the chain the engine will stop and we must repeat the whole process again. Once we finally get the vehicle going, driving it is another escapade in itself. Take the thing on a perfectly straight road and if you were only to watch the driver and not the road ahead, you’d think you were on a twisty curvy mountain road. Nope, that’s just the horrible steering of the truck. The workers compete to see who can drive the straightest, because to do so you are spinning the steering wheel this way and that at a hundred miles an hour just to keep the truck moving in a straight line. Once the vehicle starts moving faster than 30 mph you notice that the floor under your feet is simply a scrap sheet of metal just a few millimeters thick. A hard stomp and your foot would probably break right on through and hit the earth speeding by below. Driving over the rocky terrain and bouncing up and down, you begin to wonder how many months – or days – the thin floor will remain. And just when you thought five seats means five people can ride in a car, somehow we manage to cram ten or twelve in the old truck as we’re off go work in the field.
Harvesting corn: All I can say is that we’ve got it good in America. Those massive tractors that can chop ten rows of corn moving at 20mph with the comfy air conditioned cab – not how things work down here. The farm equipment is probably 50 years behind what we use in America here in South Africa (in some other African countries it is as far as 300 years behind – people still working the fields by hand). The corn harvester is attached to the back of the tractor, then we inch through the field at a grueling 3mph and chop one line of corn at a time. The process is so slow that the workers who are not needed to operate the tractor go out into the field and pick the corn by hand. Every five sweeps of the field, the harvester needs to be emptied into a trailer. After two dumps, the trailer is full and we drive back to the farmhouse where we empty it into the silos. As we pull the trailer back to the farm the kids jump and play in the four foot deep load of corn. They make corn angels (much like our Coloradoan snow angels) and bury themselves in corn (like with sand at the beach). Once we arrive at the silo, however, the real work begins. All of the corn has to be scooped off the trailer with buckets and thrown into a machine that pours it into the silo. That means we scoop about two tons of corn off the trailer with dinky paint buckets. With five of us working, it probably takes about forty five minutes to unload all the corn. Then we take the trailer back out to the field to do it all over again!
I’m really beginning to get in the rhythm of life here on the farm. I’m becoming good friends with the workers, learning the daily tasks and chores of living on such a large farm, and simply getting a better idea of what life is like in South Africa. Yesterday I went with some workers into town to visit one of their homes, which was an eye opening experience. First of all, everybody travels via hitchhiking. Nobody on the farm has a car of their own, so everybody walks out to the road and thumbs a ride into town for about one dollar per person (it’s a 20k trip one way). Unlike the US, stopping to pick somebody up on the side of the road is common practice around here, its how most people get around. So the first car that we saw stopped and picked us up, just a man driving to a town 50k up to road from where we were going. He dropped us off, then we walked another mile or so to the ‘black’ section of town. This is, in essence, similar to the poor neighborhood of any town in America but much more primitive. These people live in tin shacks ten feet by ten feet. There is no furniture, no electricity, no water, just an old bed frame with a piece of raggedy foam on top and a pile of clothes in the corner. The sad truth is that this is all these people can afford. These workers on the farm who do backbreaking work eight hours a day six days a week earn a monthly wage of about $45, plus whatever tips are left by guests. While they are supplied with food and water here on the farm, you can still see how difficult it would be to raise their standards of living or escape the poverty they are caught in when they make less per month than many Americans make in an hour. Nobody thinks twice about it though, because this is the way life is out here. I was shocked when I heard how little they earn, so I’ve been talking with a few workers trying to get a better idea of what the economic situation in South Africa is like as a whole. Apparently it is common practice to earn 45$ a month for the black workers, and some even said they were well paid compared to other farm workers which is why they stay on this particular farm. I asked one what he does with the money he earns each month and he told me that half goes to his family while the other half he spends on new clothes. Needless to say, there isn’t much else they could do with so little money let alone put in any into savings. Anyways, just something for everyone back home to think about – we always hear the statistic that something like 50% of the world’s population live on less than one dollar per day, but it means little unless you are exposed to that way of life which is exactly what life is like here for the majority of blacks.
But of course there are two sides to every story, and for that reason I have talked with a lot of the local white people as well discussing the economic situation down here in South Africa. They of course have their own explanations for why most black are in the situations that they are in, but it’s hard to take everything I hear from the white’s without a grain of salt… I would say that in nine cases out of ten they are racist and in my opinion that clouds their judgment and thus the answers to the questions that I ask them. Such is life, however, especially in a country like South Africa where Apartheid took place less than twenty years ago and they are still adapting to this way of life.
On a separate note, I met a zoologist down here who is currently working on a project studying the Black Footed Cat (among others) who wants me to help work on the project. This Thursday we are heading out for a week to gather info and band as many cats as we can find, so it should be a super duper time! Other future projects of hers that she said I could help her work on include climbing trees to band baby vultures, tracking and following lion herds, finding alternative solutions to problematic jackals on farmers property etc… so I am excited to see if this goes anywhere and if I can start working on some of these projects!
Other fun side notes: The other day Darin (my program leader) stopped by to check in on me and see how things were going. We went out to the sinkhole, and I’d told him that it was something like 300 meters deep and that it looked great for climbing because you can simply fall into the deep water. Well, the first thing he said to me is “no better day to climb and jump in than today” then he took off his shirt and leaped in! All I could think was, heck yeah this guy’s got the right attitude. So I climbed up the wall that I had been staring at for the past two months and had a great time. It was a bit similar to the trip Joby and I took last summer to Croatia where we went deep water soloing, except the water here is much colder and is covered in green pond slime. Mmmmm. But besides that, what fun! That day I also found a porcupine when I was walking around the farm, and Franky (dog) was with me and started chasing it. This must prove that dogs don’t have much intelligence because he kept trying to bite the thing and sticking his head near its huge quills. Unfortunately in the midst of running and trying not to trip over termite mounds, rocks, and aardvark holes, I could only get one picture before the porcupine ran down its hole in the ground. It was a really neat find though because I have been running into quills here and there when I’ve been hiking around, but never seen the actual porcupine itself. I have also been checking up on the barn owl nest that I found a few weeks ago and those little guys are growing up quick! They already have what looks like their adult plumage, so I wonder how much longer they will be in the nest before flying off for good!