On my walk home from dinner last night in Nairobi, I said hello to a cat perched on a cement block wall (as one does), and he came running to me like I was an open can of tunafish. People in Africa don’t treat pets the same way we do in the states, and this cat was thrilled to find someone who would give him the respect and petting he felt he deserved. He followed me all the way home and even tried to come in the house where I am staying. In the morning, the same thing happened, but this time with a dog. While waiting for a taxi at 6am, a small white terrier wandered over. He looked like he would be more comfortable in Buckingham Palace than the streets of Nairobi, and when I leaned down to pet him, he literally got up on two legs and started dancing around me like a circus animal, he was so happy that someone would actually pay attention to him. I felt a bit like Dr. Doolittle. (The Rex Harrison version, not the Eddie Murphy version).
When I got to the airport, they told me there was no room on the flight. Apparently my confirmed ticket was of little importance. Luckily, there were two men traveling together ahead of me in line, and with only one seat left on the plane, the airline told them to travel together on a later flight and they gave the last seat to me.
On my plane there was a Burmese refugee – a teenage girl living in Thailand. She is traveling under one name – sort of like Cher or Meatloaf – but hers is Narumoon. Her real name is Crystal Maung, but the Thai government does not allow illegal aliens to have a surname, so they only issued her travel documents with one Thai name they force upon her – Narumoon. This is a problem to go to South Africa, where the forms require a surname. So she almost was not able to make the trip (She’s coming for a short course at the African Leadership Academy here in Jburg). Even though she’s an illegal alien in Thailand, the government doesn’t bother her (except for forcing a one-word name upon her) because her mother – who is also an illegal alien in Thailand – is a world-renowned doctor working with Burmese refugees. Her mom was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize several years ago. I assume the mom also has a one-word Thai name she must use for traveling. Thais allow and expect their own citizens to have surnames, but they deny it of aliens. There’s so much going on out there in the world one would never know about if not for talking to strangers in airports.
I got a ride to my hotel in Jburg from another Burmese refugee, an exile who runs the Free Burma campaign in South Africa. He and his wife have been exiled here over 20 years and they said they are still “working to like it here”. Despite the challenges of living in a foreign land and not being allowed to go home, they clearly have a deep respect for Nelson Mandela whose 94th birthday is today. A festive day for my first visit to South Africa. My Burmese friends say there is a theory that the King of the Dead is not calling upon Mandela because even the King of the Dead feels bad for all those years he spent in prison, so he is giving him extra time on earth before calling on him.
Now I’m waiting at the hotel for GO Board member Jill Goldman. She’s out delivering cakes baked by ex-prostitutes to the elderly dying of AIDS. Hooker cakes for the aged. Only Jill would be out doing such unique service. Here is a photo she just sent me.