April 19, 2007

South Africa 2003-04: Habit as Infrastructure

Sixth in a series of posts about South Africa, originally written during the 13 months I lived there in 2003-04.

The experience of foreign travel is heavily marked by encounters with infrastructures different from your own. It's one of the main things that makes the "foreign" foreign. You drive on the other side of the road. You need electrical adapters and transformers. You get on the bus not knowing you have to "compost" your ticket, as the French put it, so you have a frustrating and perhaps expensive encounter with the transport police. These encounters with infrastructure cause accidents, misunderstandings, and delays. They require you to concentrate and focus on things that are normally transparent.

They also mark you as foreign. Before you even open your mouth, people can see from your body language that you don't know what you're doing. Every time I live abroad for more than a few weeks, an important moment arrives when I've internalized the habits of mind and body required to negotiate foreign infrastructures. Rather suddenly, people mostly stop asking if I'm on holiday, or where I'm from, and they stop trying to show me where the light switches are. Of course they hear my American accent, but it seems to me that the non-verbal sense of whether or not I'm at home here trumps.

What habits are involved in "being at home" in another country?

Take the simple act of leaving my house, negotiating the physical infrastructures of the house, the garage, and the car. How do these habits both depend on and actually make up infrastructures? Which aspects of my new habits are specifically South African?

Here's how it goes. Preparing to leave the house, I collect whatever I'm going to take with me. This depends on the errand, of course. But no matter what, I have to assemble a set of things that go into my pockets: cellphone, wallet, house keys, car keys. First step: find the cellphone. If it's not out on one of the obvious surfaces, make use of the telephone infrastructure itself: call the cellphone from another phone and hunt for it while it's ringing.

My need for the phone is partly the same and partly different here than in the USA. Mainly I need it because I have a young child and I want to stay in touch if I'm leaving without him. But I also need it because it's stupid to move around in South Africa without some way to call home, call the cops, call for emergency services, etc. It's a safety device. This isn't just me. White South Africans I've met say that their epiphany about actually needing a cellphone came while driving at night along a dark stretch of highway in a hijack zone and realizing that a cellphone, in that place, at that time, could mean the difference between life and death.

Next, find the wallet. Usually it's somewhere near the phone. If it's not, search pockets and surfaces. This process becomes progressively more irritating when it has to be repeated, sometimes several times. One possible solution might be to find a dumping spot near the front door and convert the emptying of pockets into a habit connected with entering the house. This worked in Ann Arbor, but it does not work in South Africa because we live on the second floor and don't want to leave valuables in the first-floor entryway, where they could be spotted by burglars. Other factors: as Luka gets taller, storage surfaces that once worked are no longer safe, and we sometimes use our wallets and especially our phones elsewhere in the house. So a formerly habitual act has become one requiring conscious effort on a daily basis due to the combination of South African safety concerns, personal circumstances, and architecture.

Third, find the house keys and car keys. This is usually easier because we've made a habit of leaving them on the key rack by the front door, in the entryway. (This is not visible from the front door.) Grabbing car keys from the hook was transparent in the USA, but not here. The keys are attached to our "panic button," used to instantly summon armed guards if we're attacked anywhere in the vicinity of the house or garage. We have to handle the keys carefully so as not to push this button by accident. (Even more important, we can't let Luka get hold of this. From his point of view buttons exist to be pushed, repeatedly, until something interesting happens.) Would we remember to use the panic button? I doubt it. Though we've practiced and tried to ingrain the idea, it's precisely because using the panic button is not a habit that we would most likely forget about it in the shock of an encounter with an assailant.

Now I'm ready to leave the building. Unlock front door, pass through it, close and re-lock. Open metal security gate with complicated winged key which only works in one of two possible orientations, whose difference is indiscernible to naked eye. Lock rarely works the first time; key must be wiggled and coaxed. Pass through security gate, close, re-lock. (This isn't very different from living in, say, New York City, except that each lock must be manually re-locked.) Down steps into courtyard, cross courtyard, up steps into narrow hallway at building entry. Open door from entryway into garage, being careful not to slam door into side of car just inside. Close door since car cannot exit with door open. Squeeze through narrow space between car and garage wall, past large metal mailbox which protrudes irritatingly into garage through wall. Squeeze through even narrower space between the car's rear bumper and the garage door. (Clearance less than 18 inches, very annoying if you're carrying bulky items.) Push button to open garage door; wait for door to roll up (literally). It took me months to smooth out this sequence of motions, and the squeezing around the car remains impossible to ignore.

Darkness never falls later than 6:30 PM in Durban. This is another sociotechnical effect. South Africa has a single time zone; it's the same as Western Europe, even though Durban lies on the same longitude as Kiev. So we're often leaving the house in darkness. If it's dark, I immediately exit the garage to the street and scan the area for lurking criminals. If I'm carrying anything at all, I put it into the trunk of the car, since here nothing can be carried on the back seat or the passenger seat lest it be seen and snatched by smash-and-grab artists. Back door of Subaru Forester opens upward and will collide with garage door if not lifted very gently. Car must be re-sold at end of year, so any damage to finish will be costly. After stowing gear, step out and scan street for miscreants again. This isn't just about petty theft; hijackers choose particular vehicles and make a careful study of their drivers' habits before they strike, so a display of constant vigilance is an important deterrent.

Squeeze between driver's side of car and garage wall. NB: driver's door would be on other side of car in USA, obviating two-thirds of the squeezing process. Open car door and get in. If you're me and Gabrielle has been driving the car, this involves yet another squeeze, since her seat position does not leave enough space between steering wheel and seat for me to enter in the normal fashion. Instead, I have to sit down facing the garage wall, scrabble around for the lever, slide the seat back, and then swing my legs in, meanwhile trying not to grind the car door into the garage wall.

All of this even more difficult if carrying 1-year-old child who must be crammed into his car seat, placed on driver's side under police advisement. (If hijacked, driver traveling solo with child needs to reach child without having to walk around vehicle while confronting armed and extremely nervous hijackers likely to bolt with child still in back seat.) While cramming child, parent may also need to deprive him of keys surrendered to child in earlier steps. Forcible key deprivation leads to immediate and inconsolable screaming. Persuasion works better, but can take several minutes.

Insert key into lock. Turn on car. Disarm anti-hijack system by pressing button cleverly hidden under stick-shift cover; failure to push button results in suspicious cellphone calls from dispatchers of vehicle recovery helicopters. Lock doors to inhibit hijackers, kidnappers, and purse-snatchers. Back car into street. Attempt to close garage door using remote control, which only works some of the time — perversely, it does better at 30 meters than directly outside the garage. If remote fails, dismount from vehicle and close door manually. Return to vehicle.

Just seeing the space it takes to write out this sequence of actions shows how complicated it actually is. Some of it, like the tight squeeze through a tiny garage, might be the same anywhere. But some parts of the sequence are peculiarly South African: the security gate with its strange winged key; the need to hide luggage; constant vigilance, such as scanning the street; all the other safety issues around car hijacking and smash-and-grab.

Taken together, all this made my exit sequence infuriating for the first several months. So many things required memory and conscious effort. Awkward and uncomfortable physical movements— wiggling the key, squeezing through the garage, dismounting from the car to shut the garage door — were inherently irritating.

The interesting thing is how most of this is now habitual. I go through most of it quite quickly now, without thinking about it much. I unlock the gate, squeeze through the garage, and blast through the car startup sequence in a smooth blur of motion, a kind of dance. I don't worry so much about security, either, precisely because these precautions have become habitual. There's even a certain pleasure in this coordination, so painstakingly acquired. I very rarely set off the panic button by mistake, or forget the antihijack system and the locks. It's a micro-example of something repeated in every human interaction with infrastructure, everywhere, every day.

Another example involves driving on the other side of the road. After thirteen months here driving on the left-hand side seems so natural that when I watch an American film my right foot presses involuntarily on an imaginary brake when somebody speeds off in a right-hand lane. Everybody who's learned to do this knows that the most dangerous moments lie not in the new situation, whose strangeness makes you nervous and alert, but in returning to your old situation, where you relax too quickly, expecting your old reflexes to return.

The intriguing thing is how this habit extends far beyond the context of driving. It eventually dawns on you that it governs informal rights-of-way as well. If you're descending a staircase and meet someone coming up, which way do you move? In the USA it's to the right, but here in South Africa (as in the UK, Australia, etc.) it's to the left. You get in your lane, as it were. The same goes for sidewalks, queues in public toilets, and virtually any other public space. It's a physical manifestation of an infrastructural standard which exists as law on the road, but equally, as custom, in other rights-of-way.

In a tiny way, watching these and many other habits entrench themselves in our lives has helped me understand why and how racial segregation persists de facto when it is no longer de jure. The infrastructures built under apartheid endure, in part, just because people keep on doing what they've always done. Of course this isn't just South Africa. It's everywhere. Human habit forms an integral part of all infrastructure. It's how we keep from having to think about mechanical things we have to do every day. And habits, as we all know, die hard.

1 comment:

The Garage Guy said...

Very interesting article