Bob's travel journal

Bob's travel journal

Please send feedback on these entries to Bob , not to Tom.

12/2/03 Cape Town, South Africa

Again, dear readers, I beg your indulgence -- these notes are dashed off in one go while sitting in cafes and overloaded with fresh sensory input. So the following will surely be disorganized (as was my London entry, which contained three errors, which you've surely either discovered yourself or can now gleefully hunt in the baseball-bat-in-the-tree-leaves Highlights For Children manner; I'll try to be more careful, but again, no promises, read at your own risk, I'm full of new experiences and questionable drink).

The main thing in my head at the moment: it's a lot harder to get a baboon out of your rental car than you might think.

No, I am not making that up. And I'll get back to it at some point, I promise. Meanwhile, I'll have to stop complaining about things like potholes, as road hazards go. Thank goodness baboons don't particularly like tzatiki, or I'd still be stranded at the Cape of Good Hope, surrounded by an growing band of hungry primates...


And I'll leave aside the pleasures of learning to drive in the right-hand seat on the left-hand side of the road, using aggressive city traffic as an ongoing lab. This has surely been more harrowing for others than myself.

The first thing that struck me about Cape Town was how incredibly familiar it felt, and not just because American culture is the Borg and so "Fame: The Musical" is playing the Cape Town convention center while LeBron James' face peers up from the cover of my hotel's in-house magazine.

No, the familiarity is more than that. I'm ten time zones from home, whose direction is almost the same as the floor, a good 8000 miles from anyone I know by name, and still: a city is a city, and this one, at least, seems to mirror many American cities in its development. Much of the waterfront here could be in Baltimore. The rich live in houses in the hills, just like Cleveland and Los Angeles and any other city with hills. Ethnic enclaves flank the city; where the U.S. might have a Chinatown, Cape Town has the Bo-Kaap, a Muslim enclave from whose minarets the call to prayer is audible for half a mile.

And I'm thrilled to hear it. I would almost have to remind myself I'm in Africa, except Africa keeps doing me the favor, in a hundred ways, often all at once. The sky and water here are impossibly blue, the result (as far as my quite ignorant eyes can guess so far) of a transport and shipping (as opposed to manufacturing) economy and a lack of air traffic (about one flight an hour when I looked) to this remote spot. Drive toward the Cape, and wild partridges wander across the street. Walk to the university, and wild springboks are visible on the mountain above. Occasionally, an overeager baboon leaps right into your car when you've stepped out to take a picture, scaring the hell out of you and leaving you wondering how the hell you'll ever get home. But I digress.

The faces of the people here are the most wonderful reminder of all. The mix is amazing. Africans from across the continent, Cape Malays (imported generations ago, goddammit, as slaves), Indians, you name it -- and the linguistic stew would be daunting if almost everyone didn't seem to speak English as a second language at least. And that seems expected -- the woman who rented me the car at the airport (not realizing the horrors she was about to unleash on an unsuspecting people) spoke at least three as I watched, and when I asked, she explained that most people she knew spoke at least two, just to get by, if not three or more.

Take that, Belgians.

So far, I've seen TV news in English, Afrikaans, Zulu, and Sotho. And when they do man-on-the-street stuff, they broadcast whatever the hell comes out of that person's mouth, no translation seemingly necessary.

(In pop culture terms: on the South African version of "The Weakest Link," the contestants I saw were named Gertina, Nigel, Erno, Quraisha, and Rico, speaking five heavily-seasoned varieties of English.)

Which makes me wonder: is this nation actually possible? I mean, the U.S. can't seem to pull it together between New York and Virginia. Can a country really have 11 official languages and manage to pull it together?

I'm suspicious of my own hopes, and certain of my incompetence to judge. Tears actually welled in my eyes when I heard the multilingual anthem during the rugby World Cup, enough to briefly blind me to the racial tensions on the South African squad doing all that hearty singing (a situation you dear readers so well corrected).

You've probably seen Cape Town in the news recently as the site of the 46664 AIDS benefit concert featuring Nelson Mandela as both an actual human being radiating warmth and a 30-foot sculpted spiritual backdrop. And that seems about right. Even newspapers here often refer to him only as "Madiba," an affectionate nickname whose translation no one I've met seems to know or care. The word is used almost like a brand name (and I mean that in a good way) for a new South Africa, or perhaps a mantra by which it can be summoned into existence.

I walked over to the neighborhood where the concert was held, curious to watch and meet the people and see if the mantra is working. It's in a part of town -- Greenpoint -- I was told was dodgy by people who don't actually live here. Truth is, Greenpoint in Brooklyn is just as dodgy, and what tension there was seemed at least as much economic as racial. The confusion of the two is another thing that feels a lot like back home.

That's not to say rich and poor here are anything like the U.S. The only places I've seen in the U.S. that even approach, say, the shacks on the wrong side of Hout Bay (where you can find luxury hotels and shopping at one end of the beach and heart-crunching poverty at the other, past the fishing boats) would be stuff I've seen on American Indian reservations. But multiply the number of people involved by... aw hell, I have no idea what number... but the meganess of the poor here is just daunting. Not to mention that something like one person in eight is HIV positive. Even thinking about the problems facing this society sends me into overwhelm.

Still... talking to the people here, I feel a surprising amount of hope -- a cliche, I know, but deal with it -- which I could somehow translate into html and share.

It's a common mistake of travelers (and I think maybe liberal ones in particular) to rave about the friendliness of the locals whenever you go somewhere new. It's hard to judge, because you're different, too -- active, talking to strangers, and open to new experiences. If you lived that way at home, people would be friendlier, too.

But some of the people I've met so far really have been incredible, whatever their skin color or first language seems to be (even English). Little stuff, mostly. Smiles and eye contact on the street. Interested conversation from total strangers, and not just in tourist areas. People of three different skin tones and accents running to help the lunatic American with a baboon in his car. Stuff like that.

I'm driving to Johannesburg next. We'll see what I find along the way. I might stop and watch a cricket match in Bloemfontein that would cut into my Jo'burg time.

PS -- thanks for all the emails. I can't possibly answer. And before any of you say it, let me: the idea that anyone on Earth could possibly have any significant insight in mere days in places he's never been before is absurd and vaguely insulting to the places involved. Which is why I repeat: no expertise here. Just what's hitting my eyes.