South Africans living the dream in Whistler 

And no, they don't ride elephants to work


"Cell phone service here is awful," said Philippa Lewis.

"So complicated and so expensive," noted her friend, Mark Conway.

"And then you can't even get your bill!" she said, noting the service providers are far more user friendly back home. But I'm distracted because she enunciates the word "bill" like "bull" because she's South African.

All five people in this room are South African, in fact, and are living in Whistler as part of an working holiday program agreement between the Canadian and South African governments, where South African students or recent graduates can work for up to one year in Canada.

I've come to visit them at staff housing, to observe these South Africans in what can only be described as their temporary natural habitat. They - Rebaone Motlogelwa, Nombuso Ntshangase, Xander Wentzel, Conway and Lewis are sitting on three couches positioned in a semi-circle in a second-floor common room. Wentzel's drinking a can of Wildcat beer - hardly a Canadian favourite but, hell, it's cheap - and some half-naked dude keeps popping in every 15 minutes to check on his frozen pizza now baking in the oven.

The working holiday is essentially an exchange program in Life Lessons 301 for new university grades looking for a bit of world experience before buckling down and getting on with their careers. And, of course, they come to Whistler, a town that specializes in this sort of experience-providing and responsibility-flouting lifestyle. Whistler Blackcomb has acted as the employer for the past two years and has employed about 70 S. Africans, from selling tickets to bussing tables at Rendezvous.

The five people here had never laid eyes on each other before boarding the same plane together and flying the 32 hours to Vancouver International Airport. They came to see snow and to learn how to ski - to live it, like everyone else who has ever visited this town - but more than that, they have all come to see what Conway calls "the hype."

"North America like dominates everything," he said. "They're in charge, so we want to go see it. Everything is so big - the cars are huge, everything's so efficient, everything works."

That was the perception, anyway, and when they got here they found that, by golly! It's true! Everything does work. Whistler is hardly indicative of the rest of North America - if anything, it's North America at it's most functional and superficially appealing - but for these young folks who come from a Third World nation with pockets of the First World, where the buses run whenever they damn well please and cross-walk signals are unheard of, it can be a bit jarring.

"Everything's so structured here," Conway said. "We were in Vancouver for two days, we walked on and we waited for the green light, we waited for the hand to go away and everyone walks together. It's all structured, but back home its just chaos."

"Can I be blatantly honest?" Lewis said. She laughs nervously. "Um. Well. My first thing was the amount of drugs that goes on here. Not in a bad way or anything but it was just...."

We all know what's rocking the bloodstreams of Whistler party animals but for foreigners visiting from countries with stricter regulations on drugs, the ready access can also be a bit jarring, so I was curious what drugs they were referring to.

"Cocaine," says Mark Conway. "And weed." Everyone in the room laughs. "Weed is more common here than beer is back home."

"When we wake up and we smell weed, then we wake up and we smell weed," Lewis said. "We have it in South Africa but it's just like, um, if you get it it's like" - she slumps her shoulders and darts her eyes from side to side, imitating hiding in a back alley or ducking behind a parked car -  'Oh my gosh, I'm going to go organize to get weed,' rather than walking up to the nearest person and being like, 'Hey, you have some?'"

But perhaps more than anything, they're impressed by the absence of gates and walls protecting their homes. Gates are everywhere in South Africa. Everywhere. It's normal living.

"It just feels weird, it feels like varsity (without them,)" Lewis said.

"It feels like a holiday," Wentzel said.

"It's crazy, actually," Motlogelwa said.

Each of them, like other South Africans I have met, exude a slight self-consciousness when discussing their heritage, as they have to constantly scrub away the myths about South Africa whenever they go abroad. No, they don't ride elephants to school, and no, every other person is not a murderer.

"I had a big talk with a guy on the gondola," Lewis said, "and I said I was from Johannesburg and he was like, 'Oh my gosh, how is it there?' I was like, no it's fine. What I explained to him is that we have a different way of living... Tourists aren't aware and they come to our country and they don't have that sort of mind set and that way of living... The crimes in our country are more opportunistic."

Said Wentzel: "People think of Africa they tend to think of places like Central Africa, countries like Malawi, Tanzania, Congo, all those poor countries. They come to South Africa, Johannesburg and they're like, 'Whoa, this is a big metropolitan city.'"

Wentzel - who speaks Afrikaans English and knows enough Zulu to get him through casual interactions back home - added, "The best way to learn about South Africa is to go there. And I think people are scared. It's just like me saying, 'Let's not go to Canada, it's snowing the whole time.' Well, life carries on here, right? The general media of South Africa is that there's crime and it's far, it's this and that. Once you break the circle then you can see inside."



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