• Stephen Narsoo

The Travelling Scholar- Journeys in Los Angeles

Introduction: Bows and Arrows

I am 28 years old sitting in the duty free lounge at OR Tambo International Airport, about to board a plane to New York and then continue to my final destination -the City Los Angeles. I am enrolled as a Masters student at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) about to start a two-year programme in Urban and Regional Planning. I have been awarded the prestigious Ford Foundation Scholarship. I am an International Ford Fellow. The official UCLA School of Public Affairs acceptance letter is in my carry pouch.

But how did I get here? As I sit in the departure lounge, I reflect on all the events that have led me to this moment. Life has a funny way about it. A series of seemingly unrelated events, with those very special moments that really stand out, many great moments make for an extraordinary life. And this is one of those moments. In solitude, despite throngs of travellers around me, I glimpse into my past, how did I get from being a kid in the backyard of our house in Lenasia to the airport lounge at OR. Tambo International? When did I give up the childish things in life?

It seems as if it were yesterday that I was playing care free in the backyard. It’s a balmy Saturday summers morning, too early to be up for most. But there I am in my backyard, barely ten years old pretending to be a lone cowboy ranger. I had just pitched my tent for the night, getting ready to make a fire, long rifle at my side, and the sounds of Wild West in the background. Except it's not dusk, I have fashioned a wooden rifle and I am not in the Wild West. I am in my garden in Lenasia, south of Johannesburg, and the only sound in the background is my grandfather moaning because I have used his favourite blanket as a tent, which has now become heavily soiled.

You see I had always been a dreamer, and had worked fastidiously to turn my dreams into reality. Not unusual, in fact all the kids were enacting some outlandish fantasy on the streets, in backyards, at quarries and in open velds all around townships in South Africa.

Lessons were learnt when turning dreams into reality, hard ones, but lessons that built character. This was good for a ten year old, growing up in Greyville, Lenasia where alcoholism and drug addictions in families was more common than not. Where gangsters were more famous than the school principal and where life was lived on the fringes.

So dreams were all we had really - a deep form of meditative transcendence, a practical survival tool. Dreams and reality met each other through invention. There was no Sony PlayStation 3, cellphones and TV time courtesy of South African Broadcasting Corporation was limited. So we had to make things with our own hands, the context necessitated this. The invention brought us together, there was a season for everything, kite season, top season- we made everything. Our wooden swords, our paper tissue kites, our bows and arrows gave action to our fantasies- made them real and more believable.

‘Boarding call, SA Flight 207 to New York is now boarding at Gate 10’. Back to reality, passport and all necessary documents are in place. There is a rush of adrenaline in me. This dream has quickened into reality.

Darwin and the Theory of Evolution

It’s a long way to Los Angeles. 28 hours travelling time in total. A stop over to refuel in Dakar Senegal. The entire journey consists of me drifting in and out of sleep. I realise that I have not done my homework. I was supposed to read the quintessential book on Los Angeles ‘The City of Quartz’ by Mike Davis but have not found the time. And now on the plane I have no intention of reading, sleep is eminently more important. Fears surface as I drift in and out of consciousness. This South African man will arrive in Los Angeles horribly unread, with scant, and at best patchy knowledge of Los Angeles. I dream that my UCLA professors will throw copies of the Mike Davis book at me. I awake during the first part of the journey just before we land at JFK. My co-traveller a Presbyterian minister remarks loudly as I awake from a deep slumber. “If Darwin’s theory of evolution is correct, then you must be the next generation of human beings, for in my life I have not seen anyone sleep as long and as comfortably on an airplane as you.”

Mission Impossible

It’s a long three-hour layover in NYC. But finally we begin the last leg of what is now one epic journey. I arrive in Los Angeles on Saturday afternoon. Jet lagged but totally enthused. There is 14 million people in this sprawling metropolis it’s the pariah of American cities. But a legend in its own right, LA is a montage of popular imaginaries- Long Beach, Gangsta rap, the home of Snoop Dog and Doctor Dre, Baywatch, Hollywood, red carpets, hotrods and the list goes on. My new roommate meets me at the airport. She is certainly not the life of the party. My bags in the ‘trunk’ (as the Americans call it), we begin the ride to her apartment on the Westside. Most of LA is known according to the highways, there are on 105, 405 the 710. Everything west of the 110 freeways is known as the Westside. I try to make small talk, but it’s difficult. We get to the apartment as the sun is going down I sleep for a marathon 14 hours.

Next morning, it’s a quick decision, I am in Los Angeles, and it’s a city on the coast I should walk to the beach. According to the map in the guidebook, it’s a short twenty blocks from where I am to the Santa Monica boardwalk. Lesson one, guidebook maps are usually not to scale. Along the way is an odd ensemble of commercial office buildings and family houses with the American flag handing outside many homes. The last four blocks are comprised of retail clothing shops and restaurants. A man stammers out of the ‘Irish Bar’ he has a draught beer in his hand, I glimpse into the bar and an English Premier League game is playing. I find a place to buy a cup of coffee. After two hours of walking I eventually reach the beginning of the Santa Monica boardwalk. In front of me the cool blue pacific, and the longest stretch of beach sand of have ever seen. It feels rather strange being here. Next to me an Asian women is in her running gear, IPod in ears and stretching. There are few people on the boardwalk, besides it’s too early. I returned to the apartment almost four hours later to a slightly perturbed, considerably worried roommate.

With barely time to spare, we had to go shopping to buy a bed sheet, pillow and cooking gear. We were off to IKEA furniture store that was located in the suburbs in an area called Burbank. It was a marathon drive along jam packed ten-lane highways. The scale of the freeways was overwhelming. The cars on the road looked larger than what I had ever encountered. The journey was stop and start, with my roommate becoming understandably irritated. ‘It’s was Sunday afternoon where the hell were people going!’ In truth, all the American movies and television series had not prepared me for the reality. I simply had no reference point for the scale and intensity of such a city.

We returned home in the late afternoon, after four hours (two of these hours spent in traffic).

My rather frustrated and annoyed room mate felt rather cheated that she had spent all of her good Sunday afternoon in traffic, she opened the freezer pulled out a frozen pizza and a Pepsi cola and retired in the front of the TV. A combination of jet lag and culture shock precipitated a mild panic attack. I needed to hear a familiar voice, a mother, father uncle or a girlfriend. I left the apartment and walked a block north to Santa Monica Boulevard to buy a calling card. I found a kiosk, the lady inside was Mexican and she could barely speak English. I pointed to a map on the wall showing South Africa. She nodded. I bought a phone card. Got to a pay phone, punched in some numbers, and a seemingly eloquent voice in Spanish said something. The card was useless or I did not know what I doing. Beaten, after many attempts, I decided to walk back to the apartment. My mission had failed.

The power of overcoming

The night was restless, sleepless and panic stricken. Tossing and turning, secretly plotting to get onto a flight back to South Africa. I was living with a crazy; Pepsi Cola drinking, frozen pizza eating, melancholic roommate. What was I thinking? Had I simply made the wrong choice? Why had this all become so overwhelming? My final resolution at three in the morning was to at least get onto to the bus and see the University of California Los Angeles campus before returning to South Africa.

With no sleep I woke at 5:30am. The early light of the morning was just emerging. I had my knapsack and walked the three blocks to Santa Monica Boulevard to catch the Big Blue bus to campus. I may have been one of three students on the bus. I walked from the bus terminus to the main campus where the Royce Hall stands and the main plaza. I met a woman dressed in a formal shirt, pants and heels from San Francisco. She needed directions to a building where a conference was to be held. I directed her to a map of the campus I had seen earlier. I smiled, she smiled and then we departed.

I spent sometime on the main plaza, watched the space slowly swell with students. Felt the exhilaration slowly replace the dread. This was it, the opportunity of a lifetime. A dream. But I was not dreaming, this was all real. I can’t say what precisely happened inside me that morning. The air was crisp, the sound of the water fountain floating in the background. I looked onto that grand plaza. I looked up at the bell tower of Royce Hall, where unknowingly two years later I would deliver the graduation speech for the class of 2006. My survival instinct had surfaced. A deep reservoir of experience and determination that I believe dwells inside all of us.

I walked pass the plaza and found a coffee shop. I sat down at one of the computers and wrote and email to Mama Africa, then to my parents and uncle. That day I attended Math Camp and met a few of my classmates. I took my photo for my UCLA student card. I returned to Santa Monica Boulevard on the Big Blue Bus it was early evening. I found a Mexican restaurant close to where I lived. I treated myself to a beer and a Mexican supper of fajitas on Santa Monica Boulevard. A single celebration- it was my birthday that day and I had turned 29 and here I was.

The City of Angels

LA has always been a spectacle. Like Johannesburg it shares similar histories of segregation, capitalist monopolies, rogue property developers, gold mining and land speculation. Los Angeles is probably the most extensively researched city in the world. Or maybe it just feels like that. It’s the city everyone loves to hate and hates to love. Like all cities of this kind, the living here is not easy. As a newcomer you have to work hard before the city accepts you, before the true secrets can be revealed. It’s a city of colliding worlds between the rich; the Hollywood moguls, the property tycoons, investors and the poor underclass that service the economy of the rich, they are predominantly Latino. Coming from Johannesburg this is a story I can relate to. Accept it’s not the Black Africans working in restaurants, as domestics or nannies its the Latino’s. If you are an immigrant in Los Angeles your reality is different from the popular imaginaries. I read a story in the Los Angeles Times shortly after arriving showing that more than 50% of Los Angeles is Latino. It’s diverse and multicultural with over 96 languages spoken in the Unified School District.

After the first semester of three months I moved out from the Westside to Koreatown, the area had been home to a wave of immigrant communities. It was also the epicentre of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, where Koreatown and Latino shops were looted and burned down. The catalyst for the event was an announcement by the jury that the four police officers that had beat Rodney King an African American male within an inch of his life were not guilty. What proceeded in 1992 was the LA riots, scenes of burning and looting.

K-Town was not the safety cocoon of the Westside; it was and has always been a place of contestation and incident. This is where the true living began, the real LA, so travelling the 1 hour ten minute journey by bus to UCLA campus, was worth it. The rents were good in K-Town. I moved into a studio apartment at The Gaylord Apartments a handsome 14-storey 1930’s art deco building. Now owned by Mr. George Harb (a formidable man), he was born a Palestinian in Jerusalem. In 1956, when the Suez Canal War began, he was 16 and had an American passport. He moved to Detroit, attended high school for a year, had asthma and then moved to California. I would see him often in the mornings there in the grand foyer. His face was worn and crevassed, in contrast to his well-tailored suits.

The area of K-Town’s early history lives disharmoniously with its contemporary more modern aspirations, a mixture of historic buildings with newly developed strip malls, modern glass office buildings particularly on Wilshire Boulevard where the Gaylord took up its place. The dominance of Korean shops juts out with loud florescent signage in Korean now covering almost every square inch of town. Korean barbecue restaurants and karaoke bars are dotted all over the neighbourhood. The Gaylord was situated just opposite the old Ambassador Hotel where Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. I would return to LA in 2011 to discover that the site has now been converted into a High School.

I had made a seemingly small decision to move from the West to the East side of the city. But for me this had made all the difference, living on my own was the best move I could have made. It gave me the opportunity to create a home. For any foreign student, it is the single act of making a home away from home that counts. Creating a sense of home, the little things from hanging pictures of family on the walls or cooking food from your homeland- these seemingly small acts have a big impact on the travellers sense of stability and balance. My tiny studio apartment became the place where a community was forged. My classmates became my family. We made fish curry in that apartment (the way my grandmother used to make it) and on the lean months dhal and tortillas sufficed.

One Saturday night after a marathon long study session that lasted most of the morning and afternoon, we decided to have and impromptu dinner party. Within minutes my classmate I had called up all our friends. We cooked a big pot of chicken curry and within hours the small apartment was filled with 20 of our friends. Jordan, Vikram and I went to the balcony, Jordan and Vikram wanting to catch a smoke. The view from the balcony looking south was onto the site of the old ambassador hotel, a row of old 1930’s apartments flanked the west wide of the site. To the north was Hollywood, the lights from Hollywood Boulevard glistening, the city lights all around us. There were moments of chatting, but mostly this came to silence as we so often did on that balcony, the silence was to pay homage, to give gratitude for this moment in our lives. We were at the most prestigious university in the world; we had made bonds and created a community. The silence was of deep contentment. I blurted unknowingly “I don’t want this to end.”

Graduate School

It’s the second week of graduate school at UCLA. The first week is spent in Math camp and the class of 2006 Urban Planning Masters students attend a welcome ceremony by the Dean of the School. I felt grand in that hall as the Dean addressed the entire school of Public of Affairs, this part of a number of events held for students during the first few weeks of orientation.

There was a writing course that we all had to attend in the first month of school. The lecturer was Louis Dunlap who was brought over from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Louise had been teaching urban planning students to write for over 20 years. We all gathered in one of the classrooms in the Public Affairs building, all forty of us. Louise was there already, wearing, a printed top and pants that resembled a Punjabi. The class continued to chatter and out came a hand bell, which she rang. More like a small gong, used at temples, to send out calming energy and to cleanse the space. Students’ settles and the noise level subsided.

She introduced herself. A natural born flower power child, with great purpose and energy, Louise has unorthodox teaching techniques, but her techniques have gained recognition and she has assisted thousands of students to liberate their voices through writing. “Now, now settle down. I am Louise Dunlap and over the next month I will be conducting this writing workshop.” Her voice is warm; her silver grey hair is shoulder length and her gaze calm and steady. Louise believes that writing is a tool for social change. Louise is an activist who began her career as a writing instructor during the Free Speech Movement in the 1960’s in the US. She believes that “Free speech is a first step, but real communication matches speech with listening and understanding. That is when the thinking shifts and change happens.” Louise had recently published her book entitled “Undoing the Silence: Six Tools for Social Change Writing.” And the content of here teaching was based on her book, a culmination of almost 40 years of teaching writing. In short it was a real treat having Louise. But some in the class thought Louise was just an ol’ hippie and that writing was not a hard skill.

The UCLA campus, for me was like being on a set of a Hollywood movie. A scene I encountered every morning, kids on skateboards, bicycles, the UCLA logo on ‘sweaters’ (don’t know why American’s call jersey’s by this name), great migrations of students moving from one lecture hall to the next. UCLA even had its own store that sold UCLA sporting gear made by Adidas and Russell Athletic. The libraries, some old and grand and some modern, had every conceivable resource one could imagine. Of course there were academic rock stars in the Urban Planning department, Professors like Edward Soja, Michael Storper and Allan Scott, reading about these great’s who now were teaching me face to face. The academic work was cutting edge. There was also the practitioner staff like Dr. Stephen Cummins who traversed the academic and practitioner worlds and was a seasoned World Bank bureaucrat. Dr. Stephen Cummins taught classes on development theory and disaster relief management. I also took classes outside of my program; I took a course on Public Management and Bureaucracy taught by none other that Professor Michael Dukakis, who was the ex-governor of the State of Massachusetts. He was the democratic nominee to become the US President but lost to the Republican George H.W. Bush. Learning under an old master was truly inspirational.

I received the Ford Foundation scholarship after six years of working as an urban planner in South Africa. I had five years of under-graduate study at Wits University. I am half a ‘born free’ South African. Half of my life has been spent living under Apartheid and the other half in a free South Africa. By the time I had finished my undergraduate degree in urban planning which was in 2001, we where as a country seven years into our democracy. Still a young democracy there was large changes happening. The unions had formed an alliance with the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party, a consolidation of the power base. The street committees that had been formed during Apartheid no longer existed, funding from International Donors shifted to other sectors and many non-profits closed shop. Civil society leadership got absorbed by and large into government.

There was a distinct blurring of identities owing to the political configurations that had emerged and the movement of individuals from anti-Apartheid organizations into government. Government officials were calling themselves the ‘guerrillas in the bureaucracy’ professional development consultants self-regarded as the vanguard of the revolution. An identity crisis on a massive scale!

Admittedly, time at UCLA was a refreshing break from all of this. In many ways, what I had encountered in South Africa was part of the change we were going through. I often felt a duty to represent South Africa, but this became difficult. I always found that celebrating the good and admitting the bad was a good enough strategy.

Time passed too quickly, I packed as much experience as possible into this time. The program began in September 2006 and would end in June 2008. There were times I felt completely out of depth with some of the US based content in the programme, the legislative environment was foreign to me and I found it hard having to work through the legalese in many textbooks. It was a baptism of fire. I had two curriculums, the one of at the university and the other which was the school of hard knocks, exploration and the experience of everyday. My move to K-town meant that I was closer to downtown LA and the barrios of East Los Angeles. I took the subway into downtown LA as often as I could, downtown LA was an odd mix of old finance corporate headquarters (sedate and sanitised) and the main streets along transportation routes to East Los Angeles that were linear Mexican bazaars. There were many similarities to the inner city of Johannesburg.

At night the city would close down except for a few scattered bars and clubs that were open. I frequented the Mayan an old theatre converted into a nightclub, a live salsa band on Saturday nights made the haunt irresistible. There was the Library Bar and the Edison that served cheap cocktails for students on Tuesday nights. There was the downtown farmers market where I bought fresh fruit on Saturdays. I kept close to the streets. I did not have a car so public transport offered the beauty of experiential learning. The bus from downtown LA to Santa Monica was filled with immigrant Mexican workers. Most had to stand because there was simply not enough room. The curriculum of the ‘everyday’ I made up as I went along. Sometimes just riding the subway, noticing the small seemingly insignificant details of people was a lesson in and of itself.

East Los Angeles, places like Boyle Heights taught me about the struggles to find a home in the city if you are a Mexican immigrant. Through my close friend and classmate Jesus, I was exposed to the struggles he was experiencing trying to organise his community to resist redevelopment. Redevelopment would lead to removal and relocation of the existing community breaking a network of social bonds that had taken decades to stitch together. As I moved through spaces in the city I was at the front of the harsh reality of everyday life in LA. I was also witnessing people who in their personal and professional capacity were finding ways to create social change. I also realised that the challenge for creating meaningful and lasting social change is the same the world over.

Raising Voice

It’s the night before graduation. It’s three in the morning and I have not written a single word for the graduation speech. I was selected by my class to speak at the graduation. With three term papers due the week of graduation it’s been a sprint to the finish line. I have a rough idea about what I want to say, but getting down to writing has been a challenge. I have set up my operation next to the kitchen, desk, lamp, laptop and coffee jug. Just as it starts to get desperate I re-open a mail that my mother has sent. She really wanted to be at the graduation but could not and instead wrote a powerful email to me. The women has a talent you see for writing and expression, a gift for speaking words that strike a chord especially when the occasion calls for it. Her email was the catalyst for my speech. I spoke like her from my heart, about friends that become family, about learning from the greatest teacher - life, about the school at UCLA and the teachers who give up their time to do what they must do, to train generations of conscious thinkers. Up on the podium, the thick lump in my throat and knot in my stomach was all I could remember for the first 3 minutes of my speech. But then I got going. It was quite simply the most important recognition I could have gotten, my class mates choosing me to speak, and me in turn giving them the recognition that they deserve for wanting to better their lives through education. It was something I knew intimately, because I had been given this opportunity through Ford Foundation. There were tears when I left the podium. Once the graduation ceremony was over, we stood taking photos outside Royce Hall. I did not even think about that first day on campus when I wanted to leave, when it seemed all too overwhelming.

Someone told me that my classmate and close friend Jordan Syms (the guy who started parties in my apartment) who is an African America, dark and six feet tall was standing taking photos with his family. When someone came up to him and said ‘Hey man, great speech’. Funny thing is, I am Indian; I am 5.6 feet tall and bald. How could they get it wrong?

On returning

I returned to South Africa in July 2008. I got a job in September that year working for the International Finance Corporation on a municipal support programme for a local municipality just outside Johannesburg. It was a small mining community and the problems between the miners living in informal settlements, the mining companies and the municipality who were supposed to plan for the area was not good. Upheaval and change for me lasted during these eight months. Settling back to South Africa after spending two years away from home can really test your emotional resilience. I spent a year, trying to get back into life in Johannesburg. I felt as if I was just beginning to learn how to swim again. Only after two years do things start to settle because I guess that’s how long it takes. I landed a job in May 2010 in the Mayor’s office at the City of Johannesburg. It was World Cup time and the there was an undeniable sense of energy in the air. My job was to write the long term growth and development strategy for the City. I called it Joburg 2040. It took two years to get the strategy from concept to full document. I ran the process, writing, listening, talking to many in the city, holding seminars and being part of a team who ran a public outreach process. The strategy was launched in October 2011, at the Johannesburg stadium. I sat there next to my future wife. The Mayor gave a speech, the media was there, and I stood there thinking how things have changed. The strategy now has become a benchmark in international best practice and the strategy process is now used as a case study across three universities in Europe; London, Paris and the City of Lund. For me, I had begun a new chapter in my life, I moved from student to practitioner, I had put theory to practice and had gained a whole lot of experience in the process. Most importantly, I felt Louise Dunlap and my friends in LA close by my side, every time I sat down to work on the Joburg 2040 strategy.

On becoming

There are many journeys that we take in our lives; sometimes the distance to travel may be long, often times short. But as a travelling African scholar, we bring a unique perspective to the world. We are ever learning and enquiring, wanting to delve deep into the world of whatever place we are travelling to. LA is under my skin and this will remain for the rest of my life. The knowledge that you can live, survive and thrive in another country even as a student is empowering. Perhaps it is my dreams that carried me there; no no it is my dreams that have carried me there, across thousands of miles to Los Angeles. Sometimes when you work hard enough, the distance between dreams and reality narrows, and you can hardly tell the difference.

But sometimes the dream and reality drift further apart. When this happens time for social change, and the warriors that effect social change are the only ones that can bring the dream closer to the reality. As I sit here at my computer, it is now 18 years since the dismantling of Apartheid. I wonder what has gone wrong with our dreaming in South Africa, and why have we failed to turn our dreams into reality. We are no longer the darlings of the international world. We have fallen from grace and it is time to pick ourselves up. I am comforted to know that I am part of the Ford Foundation alumni, a force for social change that is global. We will take action, and that action will be now. It’s time to finally let go of the childish things.



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Unit 8, 117 Langermann Drive


Johannesburg, South Africa, 2007.