Those were the seats we were in on the flight from Cape Town to Jo'burg this weekend: my neighbor and I. I don't usually talk to my neighbors on airplanes much. I'm polite, and then I read. 'Cause we're invading one another's personal space. Big time.
She was the first one on our flight since she had to be taken on in a wheelchair. After succeeding in getting my bulging book bag into the small overhead compartment, I took my seat next to her, tucked my book in the seat pocket and closed my eyes for a moment. The rest of the small plane was still filling up when I politely smiled and said, "Are you traveling to Jo'burg to see family?"
"My sister is dying," she answered nonchalantly. "I'm going to tell her she can't die now. She still has a lot of life in her!"
This led to a 2-hour conversation, all the way to Johannesburg. I had to keep from laughing so loud that it would annoy fellow passengers. This lady cracked me up.
I asked about her family. She's 75. Grew up in a family where her Egyptian father was classified as white and her mother as non-white. She told me about the challenges that brought, how no school would take them in, but how neighboring farmers taught her and her 3 siblings how to read and write. She told about her father's 9 farms, and how, when he was already old and blind, he went to draw up his Last Will and Testament, and the lawyers tricked him into signing everything over to them.
"Ma' die lewe gat aan!" (But life goes on!) she told me. "We should've fought the case, but who wants to fight about a dead man's things? ... So I've sold my big house and all my things and I divided everything between my 3 children so I now only have 3 dresses and scarves, 3 petticoats (slips), 3 bras, but lots of panties! You have to have lots of panties!"
She told me how her mom simply gave up on life 6 months later, and since she hadn't drawn up her will (so the State got everything that she had to her name), the children were left as orphans without a cent to their names.
She told me about preparing her mother's body for burial, as she had done with her younger sister's just a few years ago. She declared that her sister was basically "culled" by the government, because everyone knows there are too many pensioners, that it's crippling the government, and everyone knows that if you go to a doctor and they find out you're a pensioner, they'll give you 2 blue pills and then you're dead.
What was even more hilarious about this story about her sister, is that she explained that her sister had to go to the hospital "to have her water drained. What kind of a thing is that?" she asked. "I drain my own water. Remember I told you I have to have lots of panties!"
While telling the stories of preparing her mom's body for burial (her sister's body was already wrapped by the time she got to the hospital), she used an Afrikaans word that I simply cannot think of an appropriate translation. It's mos.
The word mos implies that the listener has an understanding of, or inside information on what is being said. (For example, in her comment about the panties, the Afrikaans was "Ek het mos vir jou gesê..." I translated that as "Remember I told you..." It can also be something like "You know that..." )
So as she was telling of preparing her mom's body for burial, she was saying, "Ons mag mos nie aan 'n dooie lyk met jou kaal hand raak nie." That is, "You know we can't touch a dead body with your bare hands."
I didn't know that. So I said, "No, tell me more..."
She told me how in the Muslim faith, you had to wash a body immediately to prepare it for burial, and proceeded to tell me about many of the rituals surrounding a Muslim funeral. (You wear gloves while washing the body, then dry the body with white towels, and wrap the body in white cloths. It's carried into a grave on a stretcher and placed into a horizontal hole (like a drawer) in the ground, where after the entire hole is covered.)
At a stage, I said, "I'm a Christian, so would you mind telling me how Muslims feel about Christians?" It blew my mind when she shared how they thought we were dirty for allowing dogs in our homes.
"Tell me more!" I had never heard anything like this!
She explained how, if you're ready to pray and a dog bumps into you, you have to go and cleanse yourself from scratch.
"What do you mean?" This was fascinating.
She told me about the rituals surrounding their preparation for prayers (5 times a day), how they'd wash their feet up to their ankles, their arms up to their elbows, clean their ears, noses, gargle 3 times, and then they're ready to pray. So if a dog bumps into you then, you've got to start from scratch.
What's worse, she explained, is if you've got to go to the toilet. I asked about the faucets I've noticed in public rest rooms in Malaysia and Cape Town, and her response made me laugh out loud.
"But of course!" she said, "the back yard has to be very clean!" (Die agterplaas moet skoon wees!)
I asked why she believed in Islam, and she said that's what they were, because her dad was from Egypt, so they inherited his faith. And then she said with a big smile, "You know, lots of people are coming over to our faith nowadays."
"Why is that, do you think?" I asked.
Without missing a beat, she explained to me that it is because of how they care for the poor, especially during Ramadan. "They don't have to be believers to get the food we take to the slums. But many think they should change to Islam."
My neighbor with her wrinkled face stared out the window and suddenly exclaimed, "NOW I know how the pilots know where to fly! Look at those lines in the sky! It's their map!"
For the first time during the 2-hour flight, I decided to explain something rather than ask questions. I explained politely that those were condensation trails left in the sky from passing airplanes, and explained to her how pilots use GPS to navigate. Her eyes lit up again as she said, "So it's like the beams in the microwave. Except they show the computer where we are."
Something like that. Except we don't get cooked. (Good thing that, like me, she had never heard of the chemtrails conspiracy theories, or she might be convinced that all of us are being culled, as she explained to me earlier about the government getting rid of excess pensioners.)
I got off the plane with a greater understanding of some of the challenges fellow South Africans had to endure before, of the habits of my Muslim neighbors, including how some of them view Christians, and an appreciation of the humor of a fellow Afrikaans speaker.
'Cause some things are mos much simpler to say in Afrikaans.