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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.