Saturday, March 8, 2008

As the hostel turns.

The hostel I stayed at in Cape Town was a bit different. People lived there full time. They had been living there together long enough that they knew each other's habits, idiosyncrasies and struggles. I stayed for two weeks on a work program and in doing so I became part of the "family". Jane. She worked and that was all she did outside her room. That's about all we knew about her, where she worked and when. She was mysterious. She had a four day weekend while I was there and we only saw her when she had a smoke or was eating in the kitchen. She ate only T.V. dinners and instant coffee. She had no radio, no T.V., no books in her room. She had no dates and went nowhere other than work and the grocery. We would try to talk to her but to no avail. She would reply to a few comments or questions but then would get up and leave, in mid sentence sometimes. She was always pleasant however, always smiled when we said hello. Ask her to go anywhere though and it was an immediate "no". Ask her if she wanted a book you were finished with and it was, "I am not reading now thank you". So of course we all speculated about her life. We made up sordid pasts and extravagant futures. We predicted her smoke times and which T.V. dinner she would have. We invited her to places and knew she would turn us down. If we hadn't seen her in the usual amount of time though we worried. She wasn't the black sheep, just the mysterious one. And then there was George, the guy who lived in the broom closet. He did a little work around the hostel and he lived among the tools he used. He would unroll his bed underneath the brooms, rakes and hoses at night, then roll it back up in the morning so he could get to the tools he needed. He hung his clothes on hooks meant for screw drivers and pliers and kept his alarm clock and other miscellaneous items on the steps of a ladder folded against the wall. About once every two months he would travel for three days by bus to Malawi, his native country, and buy tourist trinkets to sell in Cape Town. He would sell the trinkets, live in the broom closet until his money ran out, and then return to Malawi. He spent much of his money on ganja (and as a result walked around with blood shot eyes) and Bob Marley music. I he didn't have enough to eat Elaenor would make him sit down and eat dinner with us. He had short dreadlocks that looked like cell phone antennae sprouting from his head in all directions. He was a nice guy with a broken heart and a winding path. We all liked him. Helen was the proprietor of the hostel. Long story short, Helen was depressed, disillusioned and downtrodden. Her husband was a spiritual leader and guru in the community, and a complete asshole. One day he surreptitiously took the cat that belonged to the eight year old living in the hostel to the animal shelter. Left it to the boy's mother to explain the cat's disappearance. He was so pedantic it was tiring, he would have told you how to breathe if he had enough time, but he was busy. He had many important "meetings" to attend. Everyone knew what his meetings were about. They were day time soaps and evening reality shows. If he was at the hostel he would announce to us that he needed to leave for a meeting. As soon as he got out the door people in the hostel would yell out, "Days of our Lives" or "Big Brother" and chuckle. He and Helen were vegetarians and ate no processed sugar, at least when Helen was at home with John. What John didn't know was she had an entire side of the hostel fridge stuffed with sausage, steak and sweet things. And ganja; ganja George sold her. Ganja she would smoke frequently and in total secrecy, or so she thought. She would go down the hall to the bathroom with her purse, to roll her doobie. That was the sign, the trip to the bathroom with the purse. When she went to the bathroom with "the purse" everyone knew what would come next.She kept a ladder propped up in one of the trees in the back yard and she would disappear (although everyone knew where she was) into the tree to smoke. Then came the sun glasses, a mad rush of energy, new ideas and a clean office. When the trip down the hall with the purse happended everyone would scatter, the hostel would empty of people and her ideas would bounce off walls instead of others. She had big dreams and had done some great things but somewhere along the line had run out of steam. The guy that lived down the hall had a good job, and a nice car ( Mercedes S.U.V. of some sort )and lived in one room of the hostel, with a roommate. Sometimes his whole extended family would come to visit him, but they stayed in their cars. Fifteen or so people outside the hostel sitting around, cooking on fires and sleeping in their vehicles. (It was to dangerous to sleep outside.) They would be in and out of the hostel, using the showers, the kitchen, the dishes and the water. He never explained their appearance or their dissappearance for that matter. He never asked if they could come nor gave us warning that they would be there crowding us out. We spent time speculating about his life, wondering why someone with such money would stay in a room of a hostel with a roommate. We thought maybe he had a prison record or sold drugs and didn't really have a job. Maybe he had murdered ten people and the car was one of theirs. We never knew. Tumba was the woman who cleaned the hostel in return for her stay. She had been there for years. She also lived in one room but seemed to have friends and things to do outside the hostel. I tried in vane to get her to talk to me. I was at the hostel ten days before she did. The last four days I was there she would say hello and smile but that was as far as it would go. She talked to the other people in the hostel including Helen whom she worked for. She was Helen's personal attendant, cooking savory meat dishes and delectable desserts that Helen wanted. She was in on the game of hide and seek with John. If she were cooking for Helen and John came in she would not serve Helen until he had left. She hadn't liked John since the cat incident and was glad to participate in the secret eating habits Helen kept, besides she got what Helen didn't eat, and that was good stuff. She had a thing for George but it was not returned. Felecia also helped to clean the hostel. I never got to know her at all though I got to know her hair. She parted her hair into triangles against her scalp, about 15 in all, and each triangle then lead up into a point. She was not friendly and we never spoke but I wanted to ask her about that hair..... Eleanor was my dear friend and confidant. She was a big formidable woman. I was nervous around her at first. She was not friendly right off. When she looked at me the first time I knew she was sizing me up and making conclusions before I had a chance to speak. I found out she was going to the grocery the first morning I was at the hostel and asked if I could ride along. She said a reluctant yes and I climbed in for a silent ride to the store. We left each other's company to do our shopping and met back at the front of the store after our purchases. I had gotten a little over zealous at the grocery and she did not hide her astonishment at the amount of groceries I bought. I tried to explain it was for ten days but she was not convinced I was sane and that was written all over her face. When I invited her to share in my dinner that night, that began a great friendship. We spent the next 12 days talking, taking walks, sharing dinners and dreams. She had lived eight years at the hostel with her son. They both lived in one room. She lived there so she had enough money to send him to a good school.She had no other options so she made do with the hostel as her home. She was the matriarch of the hostel. If people were out of line she put them back on the straight and narrow path. She told people at the hostel how it was going to be and they did what she said. She gave me a good example of how to stand up for myself. On our last night together we shared a nice meal and a bottle of wine and were set to eat a fruit salad for dessert but were to full. We left the fruit salad out on the counter for us to eat later. When we did come out to eat it about half of it was gone. She knew George and another hostel resident had been in the kitchen while we were gone. Immediately she hunted them down. She didn't ask if they had eaten the fruit salad or ask if they had been in the kitchen she just went right into how rude it was that they did not ask to eat her food. Then stood there silently until they apologized. I was impressed. She didn't waver under uncertainty,she didn't give them the benefit of the doubt and therefore doubt herself, she went with her intuition without hesitation. She did not question her ability to asess the situation, nor did she question how to handle it. She was pissed and let them know it. I liked that. I wanted that. I needed that in my life. We still write Eleanor and I. I was sad when I left her country. Somehow even though I had not seen her for three weeks,and would probably never see her again, leaving S.Africa made me feel far away from her. I spent two weeks at the hostel and learned about many lives, speculated about a couple more and came to deeper understanding of that line : Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting some battle.

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