Saturday, December 19, 2009

Live: Welcome to Africa

As the plane neared the tarmac I started to think – what if I had a hard time with customs? What if I wasn't let in? What if I really did need that mysterious visa the American airline guy told me I did? How would I possibly reconcile these issues and make it to meet up with my trip? And – how would I possibly get from the airport to the centre of town?

The last issue was easy to solve – Virgin Airlines has all the rough guides to the destinations they fly to built into the back of their digitalized entertainment unit. A quick check showed me that there were a number of minibuses that made the trip. It should cost, I read, one hundred and ten rand.

As the plane touched down, and I went to the customs line, the other issue seemed far more pressing – but when I got to the gate, they just asked if I was Canadian – as I handed over the Canadian passport, I felt that there was only one answer to that – said yes, and then was ushered on my way. If only America was this easy to get through.

Back in the airport, proper, the issue of travelling from point a to point b became somewhat of a concern again. But was easily rectified when I found a minibus, and bought my ticket – 180R. Yes, I could have probably bargained it down, but was that something I really wanted to do to save a few dollars? No – just pay the money, hop on, and get myself safely to Capetown.

I found it somewhat disconcerting when we were ushered from the bus to a second car, by someone we'd not seen yet – but both vehicles had the same logo, so I hoped for the best, and got on board. All went well. We had, pointed out to us, the hospital where some important heart operation was performed.

Driving from the Airport to Capetown illustrates the class divide better than anything else I'd ever seen or experienced. You pass, first, the buildings by the airport for industrail use, and then you hit – the slums. Gated and fenced off communities where sheet-metal houses are spaced no more than a food apart from one another; communities that from the air could be confused for scrap yards. And then, only a few miles later, you see other fenced off areas, but these ones housing million dollar homes, surrounded by the best security systems money can afford. It was like District 9 – and I wondered just how it would feel to walk around within those areas.

And then I was at the Tulip Inn. Days of travelling were behind me, and while days of travelling also loomed in front, they were not quite so pressing. And I could take a moment just for myself to relax, and shower. Showering was the important part. Forty hours in transit does not leave a springtime fresh body in its wake.

But the relaxing didn't last long either. As soon as I was out of my shower, I learned about a half day trip around Capetown. Hey – when would I be back? So on I jumped, paying my four hundred and fifty rand, and fond myself taken to a number of place – all of which I forget the names to. There was cape this, and point that. They were down at the southern tip of the continent.

The wind was whipping through the African air this day. People could barely stand, let alone climb to the top of a cliff where a lighthouse of some importance stood. This wind would follow us from one place to the other, covering our bodies with sea salt as the water was spat in our faces from quite some distance past.

An ostrich farm was visited, and one other place of some note – but I'll wait for that. For as we were leaving the national park that housed the southern tip of Africa, we saw a number of baboons. People had stopped their cars to photograph them. Our guide told us not to open the window. These animals were dangerous. People in neighbouring towns lived in fear of them. Apparently they could open car doors and steal purses. Uh huh – it was the baboons doing that, was it?

But as I respect/fear all wild animals, I listened to our driver, and took photos only through the glass. One other car did not heed this unheard advice. To get a better view he lowered his pane, and just as I thought that this would prove a terrible idea, he began to snap pictures. A baboon approached, came near, and looked as if he might reach in through the window. But, changing his mind at the last second he made a quick change of plans, popped open their rear door, and got inside.

The wife screamed, jumping out of the car – pink thong for all the world to see – the man started to drive off, realizing that he had lost one partener in exchange for another, not really sure which one he wanted to escape from more, slammed on the breaks, and then turned around and punched the baboon in the face.

Well – this baboon was not one to start a fight, but he'd be damned sure if he just let himself get beat, so with a big screech, he punched the driver back. And so it went, man and monkey fists flying, neither willing to back down, until – at last – baboon retreated. Wife got into the car once more, much less than pleased, and man rolled up his window. Wife followed suit.

But had they not forgot about something? Just then, the baboon made a startling surprise attack, jumping back in through the rear door which had been left wide open, to start the pummeling again. This time – however – he as shamed and defeated, being sent back to the plains, and sufficiently locked out.

If there's one thing I've learned here in Africa it's this: You never forget your first man, baboon, monkey fight.

Only one stop remained, but after seeing that, what could top it?

Walking around with a colony of penguins that called this part of South Africa home. They're both cuter, and not as cute, as you'd expect – but seeing them try to walk around, as if they were people? Adorable.

I took a picture of them, with a small wind up penguin toy that my aunt had tossed my way, so that I might take a picture of it in Antarctica. Well – it hasn't reached there yet, but at least it's found some new friends – although it was totally ill dressed for the season, wearing a scarf and such. I mean come on, this is Africa – it's hot.

Back at the Tulip I waited for the GAP meeting to begin. While there, I overheard an Australian arguing with the bartender over 125 rand. This works out to less than 20 dollars. They were talking about how he couldn't pay the bill, and how he'd try to get cash wired in the next day. This, again, was over less than twenty dollars. It went on for some time, and was ever so tragic – almost as tragic as the guy I saw hock his home's heating unit because he needed twenty dollars. I almost thought about covering the tab then and there for him – but I wasn't sure if it was a con or not. The number seemed so low that you could pay it for him, but high enough that it might almost be a real dispute. It's upsetting that travel makes me regard everything as a possible scam – because so many things are.

Then the GAP meeting, where we signed forms, learned things, and were then suggested a place for dinner. When we received the sage advice, “now if someone comes up to you with a knife, they're not really going to stab you... but you have to give them your money.” I decided that my time would be best spent inside.

I didn't know where other travellers were staying, and so I sat in my room, reading. And to be honest? I quite enjoyed the time to myself.

We'll make no note about how a person had to come up from downstairs to help turn off the shower – because the taps were being turned the wrong way. Best to avoid that all together.

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