Saturday, October 22, 2005

Not the Same Under the Hood

My honeymoon with my new flat didn't last long.

The first night, I saw a cockroach on the kitchen counter. And grease on the walls behind the burner. And a lot of dust here and there.

Hm, a cockroach. Well, there are probably a million of them. Fact of urban living in New York too, but seems to have been revolutionized there by Combat traps and aggressive extermination. Been a long time since I've seen an infestation at home.

I placed all my stuff far from the kitchen and bathroom and zipped up everything. Put all my food in Zip-Loc bags or in the ‘fridge. Not the first time I’d seen a cockroach.

Then in the morning, I looked under the bathroom sink to find cleaning supplies to get rid of the grease on the wall.

There was a pie pan under the drain. Water was dripping into it from the pipes. Someone had attempted to repair them with a plastic bag and some plumber’s putty. (What's with the "smear it with putty" repair anyway? Tried it myself once before the pipes under my own kitchen sink collapsed while I was doing dishes. Hint for DIYers in Cape Town: IT DOESN'T WORK. Neither does silicone. Buy new parts instead.)

Okay, so the rules in my new flat are: Don't use the bathroom sink. Keep all food sealed and only use your own utensils and mug since it's kind of filthy here.

But look, over there! What a great view of Table Mountain. "Marie," I said to myself. “Shut up and don’t complain. You are fighting cockroaches in Cape Town instead of being chained to a desk in New York.”

I went about my business on Friday. Spent the day doing laundry and doing freelance preliminary editing on a book about girls and ponies. Agonized some more over my own book. Does everyone like the title suggested by Don Hudson: Before and Africa? Should I include stories from this year in the second half of the book? Nice divider page in the middle?

I switched the iBook off by nine, killed another cockroach, and lay in bed with my book about Angolan giant antelope. The overhead light was on as the bedside lamp was lacking a bulb.

Travel writer Edward Readicker-Henderson and his wife (and DHL employee) Lynn had kindly expressed-shipped me books when I was in Namibia and facing only German-language books and bad romance novels. The antelope book was one of them, although the best of the bunch was an excellent Congo book by Jeffrey Taylor.

I'd tried to give my antelope book to Shawn--because he has a degree in conservation and is a resident of the next country over from Angola--but he’d turned it down flat. So I would give it to the club that sells used paperbacks in front of ShopRite on Saturday mornings. But first I had to finish it.

Finishing it would have to wait, however, because at 9:30 p.m., the electricity blinked off.

“Ah, Africa,” I laughed to myself. Then, waitaminute… I was in Cape Town. There were not power cuts here. What was going on?

It would have to wait until morning. I wasn’t going climbing around on the furniture in the dark with my mini Mag-Lite. So I went to sleep.

By four in the morning, I was wide-awake, having gone to bed much too early. I’d just climb up on the chair and take a tiny peek at the circuit breakers…

They were fine.

A mystery, then. Perhaps outside the flat? Maybe someone would fix it in the morning?

Doubtful. In the bright light of six a.m., I climbed back up on the chair, put my feet on the counter and looked at the electrical meter.

There was a mysterious plastic box and a corresponding card. And a lot of receipts that were similar to airtime vouchers for prepaid cell phones.

Ah, a lightbulb went on. Just metaphorically, of course, as there was no current. So electricity could be prepaid too. Well, I’d just give Ms. Alex a call as soon as it was a reasonable hour and she’d sort out the electricity. Surely it wasn’t up to me, the tenant, to provide electricity?


I couldn’t make coffee or have a hot shower in the morning, so I just unfastened the chain on the front door, unlocked the two locks, turned the key in the metal fire trap gate to slide it open, and traipsed down to the coffee shop with my laptop and wi-fi until nine. That seemed like a reasonable time to send an SMS-text to Alex. Her response was that I must go buy more electricity at the supermarket. That it was my problem, not the landlord’s.

“I’ve never heard of anything like this,” was my response.

“Well, that’s how it is done here.”

Cape Town: Looks like home. Feels like home. But it’s Africa.

I walked to the ShopRite and inquired. A woman swiped the card I gave her and told me I owed 54 rand. I paid it and went back to the flat. I punched the code into the keypad. Nothing happened. I called Alex.

“Are you typing in the code?”

“Yes,” I said with exasperation. I’m sure she deals with technophobes all the time. I am not a technophobe, nor am I afraid of home appliances or machines.

“Can you see the electrical box? Are all the levers up?”

“Yes, of course. I checked the circuit breakers first thing.”

She started walking me through punching in numbers again. I said “I’llgetbacktoyou” and hung up quickly, not wanting to waste airtime on her treating me like a child.

I walked back down the hill to ShopRite. Two cashiers conferred and swiped my card. Ah, the 54 rand I’d paid had been the amount the account was OVERDUE. I’d paid someone else’s bill and now had to cough up more money if I wanted electricity.

Aggravated, I paid 20 rand. I’d keep an eye on my usage and get it exactly right and not overpay. Alex said she’d reimburse me the 54 rand.

Back up the hill in the flat, I punched in the code. The refrigerator came on, 13 hours after it had clicked off. I climbed down off the counter and threw away the food I’d stored inside of it. I’d learned a lesson today. Not that the landlord was obviously cheap or that Alex assumed I was 8 years old… no, the lesson is: Things are different here. This is not Jersey City or Avenue B, or even Barcelona. This is Africa.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

hey girl! That was one of the things I noticed when Robert's parents moved to Simonstown - they have to pay for their electricity in the same way. Prepaid cards. Seems it's pretty common in people's homes. I believe alot of the new "low income" flats that are being built have the same system.
Oh and I like the title! but I also like the "Solo in Slow-Moe" theme too. and Yes! you should include some of what you've experienced now in the book!
cheers! Paula