Bob's travel journal
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Bob's travel journal
Land Of Giant Obvious Screaming Metaphors Which Might Kill You Also
Again, I have to start by thanking the dozens of you who are offering me
housing in your hometowns all over the planet. Wow. I intend to write you
each back individually when I get home, honest. One of these days I might
have to take another trip and visit everybody. Seriously.
more random thoughts from South Africa... this is thinking out loud,
The physical beauty of the place continues to astound. There's a winding
road descending through a hilly bit of coastline where I actually watched
the sun set three times within thirty minutes, the last time with a view of
the Indian Ocean. Words fail. Also, chutney potato chips, and people
flash their headlights near Cape Aguilas (the continent's southernmost
point) not to warn of speed traps but of endangered tortoises crossing the
street in front of you.
The newspapers, radio, and TV continue to
thrill. George W. Bush, dear friends, is widely, transparently reported
and regarded as a corrupt buffoon. His recent timber deal was reported
unblinkingly in all media I saw as a sellout to his contributors -- no
more, no less.
On to harder things.
Got my first real look at
a township, the Cape Flats. The interesting thing: my first reaction
wasn't sadness or hope or fear or anything I might have expected. Instead,
it was... recognition. How odd. Of all things.
I've seen stuff
like this before, not far from home. Not comparable in size, maybe -- the
damn place just goes on and on -- but all the same: the border towns in
Mexico set up around the maquilladora plants feel just about the
same. They even look pretty similar.
I have no idea why it never
occured to me before. But come to think of it: people of a different race
assembled on one side of an arbitrary line on a map, forced by politics to
live and work as cheap labor for the folks on the other side -- why
wouldn't they look similar?
Goddam corrogated tin -- these
things aren't houses, they're ovens that people live in.
seen poverty like this on American Indian reservations in South Dakota, or
did when I was there ten years ago. But that's not comparable in size by
any means. Still, a hundred hungry stomachs surely hurt as much as ten
thousand, when one of them is yours.
When I first got to Africa, I
was really taken with the proximity of rich and poor -- you can go from
palatial mansions to intense povery in a matter of minutes. But now I'm
thinking about it... and I live jogging distance to Beverly Hills, and a
three-hour drive to shanties outside Tijuana. Does the fact that NAFTAland
has the bourgeois good taste to keep these areas separated by greater
distance make things any better? And in South Africa, the society is now
mostly committed to correcting the problem. Not true back home, where the
policies continue to ensure (despite remarkably widespread doublethink)
that inequality will continue to worsen for the entire foreseeable future.
Karma check: You can also find rich people still living
behind barbed wire in South Africa, the inevitable imprisonment of everyone
that results when a society chooses injustice as a way of life. And in my
lifetime I've seen the "gated community" become commonplace in my
One thing I love about South Africa: everyone here has
experienced radical social change as a result of committed political
activism. Back home, being a progressive activist always carries this
funky, heavy vibe, like loving a woman you know will never really love you
back. But here, she does. Man, that feels good. I hope I can remember
this back in Los Angeles, writing about Governor Schwarzenegger. Jesus, I
really do not miss the United States yet.
Also, the friendliness
here is unrelenting. Example: I'm a rugby fan, so I wandered over to the
Newlands, the local equivalent of Dodger Stadium. There was nothing going
on, and it was all locked up, so I was about to be on my way... but then I
asked a security guard if there was any way to peek in. I was shortly
given a personal 90-minute tour of the place by the fellow who runs the
South African Rugby Museum next door. Who just gave up that chunk of his
day to a strange American.
Try getting that at PacBell Park. Damn.
And this was more than typical -- a fine fellow named Trevor gave me a walk
of the cricket grounds, too. Just like that. (Quick check on yourself:
what skin tone did you instantly picture for Trevor? Why? See, this is
the sort of question you ask yourself constantly here, in the middle of a
country trying to overcame race as an issue...) Same in restaurants. Same
in hotels. Like I'm royalty and didn't know it. I have no idea what's
Maybe the entire country is sorry about the whole baboon thing,
and trying to make it up to me.
The Garden Route
tourist guidebook to South Africa I've seen recommends taking a drive to
what they call the "Garden Route" along the continent's southern coast.
None of the books even mention that you'll spend a minimum of half an hour
driving past the townships flanking the N2 highway out of Cape Town -- like
they're not even there. Which is precisely the attitude that helps create
conditions like this in the first place.
Still, I keep driving...
and damn. The scenery is worth the trip. It's all still familiar -- like
stretches of Nebraska bumped right up against the California coastline --
but also not. Unless wild springboks and ostriches are roaming outside
Sometimes I see stuff that makes me think this whole Rainbow
Nation thing is gonna happen. In a small town where I stopped for gas,
young white guys were working for a young black manager, and nobody seemed
to even notice. (This was an exception; usually it was the other way
around. I'm just saying.) But there's still a lot of the old apartheid
around, more and more as you get out of Cape Town.
there's ugly. (Some of which is me, but I'll get to that.) The town of
Knysna is an overprecious little resort on the Indian Ocean, all
gingerbread and prefab antique-y, the sort of place guidebooks love and I
usually can't stand. But the only thing worse than baboons here so far:
driving these roads at night. South Africa hasn't much gotten around to
little things like divided highways, reflective paint, lights, or even
guard rails, and so night driving here is, in all honesty, shitteratious.
Thus, Knysna it is.
The woman who runs the bed and breakfast I
stopped in was extremely sweet to me -- but referred to the security guard
outside as (my hand to God) "Blackie," who she promised was very
conscientious -- as if I might assume he wasn't for some
So I went out to say hi. And before I could
even start a conversation, this not-particularly-dark-skinned fellow
announced that I should call him "Blackie," and why? -- because he was so
black, that's why. And then he let out a hearty not-actually-laughing
laugh that clearly must usually amuse the tourists.
Oh, dear. Oh,
no. Damn damn damn. I tried to continue the conversation, but the show
was over. Thanks for coming, good night everybody...
So I went for
a walk. Up the street, three teenagers were standing outside a closed
electronics store, watching the TV through the window. All of them were
black. They were also very thin, like they hadn't eaten in a while. And
two blocks later, for the first time (this never happened in Cape Town), I
was confronted by people begging for loose change. All of them were black.
I handed over my change, passing restaurants where
well-to-do patrons (all of them white) were noshing on crepes and strips of
beast. Then I went another block or two -- almost to the edge of the cute
little hamlet -- and still, more begging.
And these didn't look like
most of the street beggars I see back in Los Angeles. Not alcoholics, or
people with mental or physical disabilities, or folks who looked like their
lives had simply exploded and they had nowhere to go. These people just
So I gave what little paper money I had, until I
literally had no money left and was heading back to the Hotel Stepin
Fetchit. And still, another young boy kept asking for money.
something I'm ashamed of next (even though a lot of other people would have
done exactly the same thing, I know). I told him "no." I didn't know
where an ATM was (or if I found one, what then? How much, to how many, for
how long? Where is the line?). I was tired. And most of all I was
starting to feel increasingly overwhelmed and helpless, and I didn't like
feeling that way. So I said "no."
And he persisted.
is the shamey part: I started getting angry. At a kid. Who, I'm pretty
sure, was hungry. Who, I'm certain, has had about one-millionth of the
luck in life I've had. Whom, I'm pretty sure, I could comfortably feed on
a regular basis if need be. But I just couldn't help him right
then, and even if I did, I wouldn't be able to help the next kid,
and the next, who were visible on street corners ahead. And the sinking
feeling sucked, and before I could even process it all, I started to become
frustrated, and it was in my voice the second time I said "no."
kid, no idiot, heard the anger. And then came contempt in his
This was an interesting moment. I wasn't an American to this
kid; he couldn't have heard any accent. I was a white guy in South Africa,
just overwhelmed with the whole goddam thing. And he was a black guy in
South Africa, equally overwhelmed and vastly the worse off for it. The
distance between us was as great as any interpersonal distance I have ever
experienced -- like any similar encounter in the States, I suppose, but
amped by this country's horrific past -- and I suspect the same thing
happens every night here.
It would have been a very easy step to
allow my anger to become a judgment of the kid, or worse, a generalization.
I have this weird feeling like I just tried on a South African's head in a
I went back to my room -- waving to "Blackie," whose name
I was never able to learn -- and climbed small into a very large bed. The
next morning, I awoke strangely angry at the white woman who ran the B&B,
as if somehow what happened on the street was somehow her fault -- and all
of Knysna's, even. Sure enough -- see! I said to myself -- when we chatted
during my check-out I learned that her husband had made a fortune as a
cigarette wholesaler during the apartheid years, a time of safer streets
(her words) for which she quite visibly yearned. Aha, I thought... I know
what this all means...
And just as I was working up a good
holier-than-thou, she mentioned that one of her family members had been
murdered in the random violence (as opposed to the organized,
state-administered kind) that has been an increasing staple of
post-apartheid South Africa. And she cried.
And I couldn't be angry
at her anymore. Or the kid. Or even myself, strangely, since I'm pretty
good at that.
The shit here is just big. More than I can
think through yet, anyway.
Tell you one thing: my admiration for
Mandela has increased tenfold at least. Not only has his life helped an
entire nation start working through intense stuff I'm just barely
glimpsing, but it turns out, I'm told, there was a point about ten years
ago -- shortly after the assassination of Chris Hani -- where the whole
country could have gone much more kablooey, had Madiba not gone on TV and
pleaded for peace.
I look at Mandela and realize nothing in my
American experience fully compares. I look at his beautiful wise face and
wonder what Dr. King would look like if he hadn't been murdered halfway
South Africa had to almost destroy itself before they could
listen to wisdom. At present, there is not a single voice like Mandela's
given a regular forum in my home country. Not one. I am more afraid for
America, having visited here.
Driving onward on the highveld, on the
N1 toward Johannesburg, I saw one of the most beautiful sights of my life,
200 kilometers southwest of Bloemfontein (look at a map: square in the
middle of nowhere, in other words), as the sun set behind me and a
torrential rain brewed ahead: a perfect half-circle rainbow, touching the
ground on each side of me, as bright as a child's cartoon and as large as
you can imagine.
And a second one, almost as bright, surrounding the
The long, deserted road in front of me went right down the
center of this perfect sight -- directly into a frightening
Like I said, land of metaphors...
PS: the greatest
Oldies radio station I've ever heard is in Pretoria, South Africa, of all
places. And good music can get you through any long drive.
there is no such thing as a good seat at a cricket match. Anyone who
claims otherwise is lying.
PPPS: good news, perhaps: in
Bloemfontein, there's an upscale shopping mall where I saw something I
hadn't seen elsewhere in South Africa: prosperous, upper-middle-class
blacks, seemingly fully equal in economic and social status. Yet in the
food court, the blacks still sat with other blacks, and the whites still
sat with other whites, walking through each other. In other words, exactly
the way similar-status blacks and whites usually function back in