Bob's travel journal

Bob's travel journal

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


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.

Anyhow... more random thoughts from South Africa... this is thinking out loud, nothing more.

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.

I've also 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. Yeesh.

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 country...

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 up.

Maybe the entire country is sorry about the whole baboon thing, and trying to make it up to me.

The Garden Route

Every 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 Omaha.

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.

But still, 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 reason.


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. And thin.

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 looked... hungry.

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.

I did 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.

And this 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."

The kid, no idiot, heard the anger. And then came contempt in his eyes.

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 gift shop.

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 done.

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 first.

The long, deserted road in front of me went right down the center of this perfect sight -- directly into a frightening storm.

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.

PPS: 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 Cleveland. Sigh...