Capetonian in Cowboyland

A South African’s perspective on Colorado Springs

by Giulio Brandi, guest writer; illustration by Julia DeWitt, staff artist

The stories about America that filter down to the bottom of Africa are all the clichés of the movies: the beatniks in San Francisco, the pitfalls of material excess throughout California, and the cold indifference of New Yorkers. We don’t hear much about Colorado, let alone Colorado Springs, so it was a pleasant surprise to discover just how weird things can get over here. Every time someone asks me what I think of the place, I tell them, “It’s weird.’’ Without fail, they agree.

I approach situations here with a sense of detached optimism and try to forget American stereotypes. It’s been surprising when some of them do appear, but it’s far more refreshing when I meet individual Americans. It could be said that the chief export of the USA is individualism, and I’ve yet to meet someone who doesn’t have a strongly defined sense of self. No one likes nicknames they haven’t chosen for themselves.

It’s tricky to maintain an objective mind-set when abroad. One’s experiences and disposition taint the essence of a place. That said, my observations may be wildly inaccurate, nothing more than the products of a deluded mind. They are no more peculiar, however, than the views of anyone else at CC.

Here’s what I’ve seen, and what I’ve come to believe.

The college is the beacon of the town. This isn’t to say that things aren’t happening around Colorado Springs; they just have a more elusive nature. For one thing, we have NORAD’s ominously silent presence eerily watching us from within Cheyenne Mountain. When I first heard about this military installation, I thought I was being told a tall tale; it’s the stuff of sci-fi movies and alien abductions. A secret bunker built in the fifties by the US military—I never thought such places really existed! Besides the military presence, the right-wing fundamentalist Christian community also surrounds us. The fundamentalists must be struggling with all the hedonism and free-thinking that goes on within their midst.

Sometimes I get the impression that CC is more of a sanatorium than a liberal arts college. The acid heads, their unmade beds, and those painfully strained and medicated students do have some bizarre, idiosyncratic tendencies. The student body is largely comprised of trust funders who’ve made it halfway west, intent on getting all the hippie out of them before they return home to work for their fathers’ companies. But I can’t be too critical of them. After all, it’s their dollar that generates the utopian standard of living at CC. This place is a kingdom nestled in the clouds; at the very least, it’s a hell of a distance from sea level. Many criticize the meal plan, failing to appreciate that there is a constant buffet available to them where they can eat like sultans three times a day. There are machines that dispense chocolate milk on demand—isn’t that every five-year-old’s dream?

Besides the variety and quantity of food available, students here take basic living rights for granted. Petty crime exists in Colorado Springs, possibly due to the tik monsters downtown (South African Slang 101: “tik” means “meth” in Cape Town, because of the sound the drug makes when you smoke it out of a glass pipe or light bulb. Tik monsters are so named because their bodies become meth machines, devoid of human emotion, existing only to serve as hollow houses for the drug.) I don’t try to sell myself as someone who comes from the mean streets—I had a stereotypical white South African upbringing—but violent crime here is practically non-existent compared to the volume of crime in South Africa. One third of South African women have been raped, and the country’s murder rate is one of the highest in the world. Many South Africans have grown callous to the crime, adopting a casual attitude toward death, brutality and violence. The Voice, a Capetonian tabloid, sensationalizes the grim realities of  South African slums. The tabloid was showered with attention after it reported on the murder of two local celebrities who were kidnapped by tik monsters and executed on the side of a highway. The Voice printed pictures of their bodies on the front page instead of using a headline.

Taking this into consideration, I have come to appreciate the systems that run Colorado Springs and America as a whole. I can’t help but see the popular anti-imperial sentiments on campus as nothing short of hypocritical. All the benefits of an imperialist government are neatly offered at CC. To take them in one hand and point the finger at “the system” with the other is cognitive dissonance at its finest. There is a popular cry of, “Yeah, we hate that system—the system that punishes criminals, that keeps us safe, that gives us a private liberal arts education. God damn you, system!” Of course, there are still flaws within these borders (the health care system is a shining example), but many things work smoothly. It’s a lot better than the critics realize. If I need to get my driver’s license, I don’t need to wait the better part of a year for the appointment. In South Africa—and this is no exaggeration—it takes about six months to get a learner’s license and ten to twelve months to get a driver’s license.

I was warned of culture shock and all its implications and it surprises me that the biggest faux pas I’ve made here was lighting a cigarette in a bar. Thankfully, South Africa hasn’t adopted smoking laws as strong as those in the West. In Cape Town, smoking isn’t just accepted; it’s encouraged. This may seem like a minor difference at first, but the anti-smoking vibe here borders on the ludicrous. At one party, I was looked down upon for wanting to light up a cigarette in a hot-boxed room—I guess one type of smoke is okay, but not the other.

One night, my friends dragged me out of bed to a country-style bar downtown called Cowboys. The ten dollar cover charge was the first omen that this was not going to be good, and I should have run back to the apartments when I had the chance. Foolishly, I paid. When I walked in, I immediately realized that I was face to face with the side of America that I didn’t want to see—namely, obese people getting drunk and horny and grinding in the center of the skate-rink-sized dance floor. And that’s not some useless metaphor; the dance floor was literally the shape and size of a roller skate rink. It even had wooden floors.

The most offensive aspect of Cowboys, however, was the stuffed head of a bison on the wall, forced to perpetually stare into the morass of the dance rink. I had never seen one before; how apt that my first encounter was with a dead one. It was a weary and tired old giant with a huge smear of cow leather for a nose, eyes as old and brown as a pine forest in autumn. And there on the wall hung this behemoth, cut in half, forced to see the fools that enjoy the best of this old continent, half of his head illuminated in flashes of red and blue strobe lights with an accessory resting on his neck—an old plastic neon necklace that must have faded long ago.

As a foreigner, I sometimes refrain from expressing my ideas and my experiences to avoid awkward conversations. For example, someone I met was discussing Mexico and he said, “The heart of Mexico is about ten miles from the American border.” Well, I guess the stereotypes about Americans and geography hold true at times! On another occasion, an old lady at a 7/11 store enquired about my accent, then said that she knew someone who went to Africa. “He’s really tall. A big fella! Do you know him?” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that there are more than ten people in Africa, so I just smiled and told her I thought I’d seen him around.

At times I wonder if people are offended by the terms I use to talk about race. South Africa is still absorbed in racial conflict and the divides are ever-present (very definite borders demarcate suburban areas). The sinister undertones attached to this, however, aren’t what they used to be in the tumultuous past of Apartheid. People are seen as equal but different, and we don’t shy away from those differences. It is natural to inquire about someone’s ethnicity and to discuss it freely. Unlike here, it’s no taboo back home to say someone is “black,” “white,” “colored,” or “Indian.” The term “colored” is an accepted term that refers to a mixed race unique to South Africa and Cape Town; it is not at all related to the American use of the word.

Ja meneer (“Yes sir”), America isn’t quite what it’s sold as, jy weet? (“you know”). That doesn’t mean it’s corrupt or deceptive—it’s just complex. And it’s difficult seeing a place in real life when all you’ve ever known about it has been a mass of distant stories. It’s a hell of a lot better than most places on Earth, and I’m grateful to be here. In the words of Jim Morrison, “The west is the best. Get here, and we’ll do the rest.”

Capetonian in Cowboyland

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1 Comment

Filed under Adaptation

One response to “Capetonian in Cowboyland

  1. Marina

    Of course it is, Che!

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