Thank you so much for viewing my first blog entry about South Africa, everyone. I seem to have run afoul of a Nigerian prince, so if each of you could please wire five million rand to my bank account in the next 24 hours, it would be most appreciated.
Five million rand is only about $500,000 USD, by the way. Thanks. I knew I could count on you.
Apologies in advance for the length of this inaugural blog entry, but like, a lot of African Adventure has been happening to us. As a wise man once told me: “These trips never turn out like you expect them to, do they?”
(Full disclosure: The wise man was Grant.)
Some of you have expressed confusion over what I’m doing in South Africa (common question: “What the hell are you doing in South Africa, Angela?”), and here is the very, very, very, very abridged version. Grant, who I met at AIDSWalk NY 2007, was born in South Africa (and moved to Vancouver a while back for work). We started dating in September and wanted to alleviate the distance, because as you know Long-Distance Relationships Suck, and we thought, well, either he could come to me in D.C., or I could go to him in Vancouver. And then instead we went with option C — both of us packing up and moving to, what the hell, Cape Town, for six months.
Roughly, these were our expectations for the start of our South Africa trip:
1. Buy a Land Rover Defender (a type of car sadly not available in the U.S., probably because it is totally inappropriate to own one anywhere near an urban center or other humans or automobiles or).
2. Drive it 16 hours from Johannesburg to Cape Town.
3. Not drive into a wall at any point.
Well, full marks on the first goal, anyway.
TRAVEL DAY 1: JOHANNESBURG TO BLOEMFONTEIN
We drove off from the dealership, destination: Bloemfontein, one of South Africa’s three (count them!) capital cities. An hour into the trip, I stuck a broken electrical charger into the power socket and blew the fuse.
Meaning we would have no power and no charging things and no tunes and no GPS and no OMG TURN AROUND WE ARE STRANDED.
Wait, no. Our forefathers back in the 1990s used to weather this kind of thing all the time. The intrepid adventurers will persevere! I had brought along a small flipbook of CDs (we have listened to The Cure and The Smiths a lot because at least half the flipbook are Indigo Girls CDs and Grant is, um, shall we say, not interested) and we bought a road map so we could 1990s it up.
Pulling into a B&B in Bloemfontein that night, we misjudged the height of their (very sturdy, very concrete) arch and drove directly into it.
We did no damage to the wall, which I believe I may have mentioned was concrete. The Defender also came away largely unscathed. It was kind of like seeing two Transformers fight, if Transformers fought at a glacially slow pace and then gave up immediately and also one of them was just a concrete wall.
One way South Africa differs from the US is that there are parking attendants everywhere. Excuse me, “parking attendants.” Most are not officially employed by a business or government entity. Most are just random dudes who put on a reflective vest and stand around in the parking lot or on the street and yell things. The idea is that they’ll make sure no one breaks into your car while you’re away, and in return you’ll give them a couple of rand. It is kind of a pointless exercise, as Grant says, because they won’t actually deter a true criminal — if someone is intent on breaking into your car, the parking attendant is just going to run off. But regardless, everyone participates in the custom of tithing to the attendants.
Returning to our car in Bloemfontein, we asked our attendant, Msantsi, where we could get some beer at 10 o’clock at night. He said it was too hard to describe where to go — and volunteered to come show us.
Me, from the passenger seat: “No, that’s okay.”
Him, already climbing into the car and attempting to crawl over the partition: “But I’m not a stranger! I’m not a stranger!”
Grant and I were both yelling no, no, no (and sort of laughing), but he wouldn’t get out of the car so Grant had to wrap his arms around the guy’s waist and pull him backwards out of the car. Msantsi then attempted to climb onto the hood of the car and sherpa us from there. (We declined.) (Though Grant did give him a high-five.)
This all probably sounds more alarming than it actually was. It’s really, I promise, not every day here that some stranger attempts to climb unbidden into your car. (Only about every fourth day or so.)
TRAVEL DAY 2: BLOEMFONTEIN TO BEAUFORT-WEST
Next day, we ventured off the N1 (the major north-south thoroughfare in the country — think I-95, but instead of rest stops and exits and Long John Silverses, just unplotted bushland for miles and miles and miles and miles MILES I TELL YOU MILES THERE IS SO MUCH EMPTY SPACE IN THIS WORLD WHEN YOU ARE NOT ON THE EASTERN SEABOARD) for a bit the following day and visited some very picturesque small towns — Trompsburg, Phillipolis, Matjiesfontein, Beaufort-West. We bought gemmerbier (fermented fresh ginger beer) from a roadside coffee stand in Trompsburg, along with koeksisters, which are an insane type of fried dough dipped in syrup and I wish I could upload them for you all along with this email but I can’t because I ATE ALL OF THEM THAT’S RIGHT MY FRIENDS ALL THE WORLD’S SUPPLY.
Beaufort-West was lovely, though we made the mistake of visiting a liquor store just at dusk (having failed to secure beer the night before), and when we left, a guy had come up offering to wash the windshield. Grant waved that it was okay. When we returned to the car, there were three guys washing the windshield and more beginning to gather. We had to climb in past people and quickly lock the door so as not to give money to the fifteen or so of them that were swarming.
We spent the evening in Beaufort-West at an outdoor cafe where we managed to knock over our glasses of wine three separate times. The waitress — with whom Grant, I must tell you as a completely impartial third-party observer, flirted shamelessly — gave us a replacement bottle of wine to take home.
TRAVEL DAY 3: BEAUFORT-WEST TO CAPE TOWN
Happy to report we managed not to do ourselves or the car any sort of injury.
DAY 4 AND BEYOND: AND THEN THINGS TAKE A TURN FOR THE UH, INTERESTING
We expected we’d spend our first few days in Cape Town variously: at a journalism conference, at the gym, in and out of wineries, hiking up Table Mountain, sitting on the beach, and so forth and so on.
South Africa is a nation of finely controlled chaos. I mentioned there are three capital cities. Maybe that’s as appropriate a microcosm as any for the complete chaotic unwieldiness of this country.
It is of course a beautiful country, with some of the most breathtaking vistas I’ve ever seen. Kalk Bay, for instance, where you hug the mountain and the Indian Ocean rolls in choppy under a line of distant mountains silhouetted in purple. It looks otherworldly.
But there are also these shantytowns.
Slanted tin-roofed shacks in makeshift villages sprout unprettily by the highway in Gauteng and Mpumalanga right next to suburban neighborhoods in which each house is gated, enclosed fully, and the fences topped with electric or barbed-wire fencing.
There is so much barbed wire that you actually stop noticing it after a while.
So poverty is a thing.
Cape Town is different. Lovely architecture and scrolling porch railings and gated enclosures that don’t really hide stucco columns and hard wood and palm trees. It’s Savannah-ish. The poverty of course still exists, but here it hides better. The Cape’s downtown is very like the downtown of any good city I love — Vancouver, say, or Savannah, or parts of Brooklyn, with its record shops and craft beer places and a constant crush of people, many of whom have that same practiced confrontational disinterest so common in New York pedestrians, and, really very progressively for Africa, men who can hold hands walking up a public street without being harassed.
Lulled into a sense of safety by the pretty surroundings, we came home from dinner one night and neglected to lock our patio door.
Which is a mistake we haven’t repeated, since when we woke up, my purse was gone. Along with it my passport, wallet, Grant’s book of travel documents and wallet and about R1000 in cash.
Everyone here has such a story. Our landlord: “Yeah, I got held at knifepoint by a group of pre-teens who wanted to shake my hand on New Year’s Eve.” A lady at the American embassy: “Well, at least you didn’t wake up one morning to find all four tires gone off your car.” People seem to wear these stories as a badge of, if not pride, then in the spirit of belonging, empathy.
You know, I’ve always vaguely wondered what it would be like to be in a foreign country and lose every scrap of your identity.
Now I know what it’s like: Pretty unsettling!
Luckily, no lasting harm done. More an annoyance and a hassle. I did lose my favorite skull scarf in the deal, though.
Things are not all gloom nor doom. Far from it. We’ve lain on gorgeous beaches at Camp’s Bay and Clifton Four, had Mai Tais and watched the fishing boats at Cape to Cuba, visited wineries and more wineries, drunk Negronis by the pool at midnight, had lunch at Reuben’s, hiked/climbed the Lion’s Head (along with five terriers who bounded fearlessly up the cliff like tiny barking mountain goats), discovered a fantastic craft beer place downtown. We’ve had amazing weather.
We have been laughing and holding hands and turning our faces toward the sun the entire time.
We had to buy new cell phones, since the old ones got stolen, and the cell phones are 1999-era dumbphones equipped with Snake. Do you remember Snake? Of course you do. Snake is amazing.
People wander around barefoot a lot.
I mentioned that we (all right fine: I) blew the power outlet in the car, and we’ve had to listen to the same six CDs (The Cure, The Smiths, The Beatles) on repeat. Yesterday, on our way to Franschhoek and wineries, an hourlong drive, Grant convinced me to bring my guitar so we could sing in the car. I was skeptical; the front of our car is essentially the cab of a pickup truck. But I thought if I rolled the window down the guitar might fit. The passenger sits on the left in South Africa, so I hung the head of the guitar, and my left arm, out the window and strummed and we sang and the sun shone.
Grant pulled into a gas station. When people saw I had a guitar, they began gathering around the car, attendants and customers. One guy asked if I knew any Jason Mraz. I said “Maybe, which song?” “Lucky,” he said. “How does it go?”
He started singing. I followed along as best I could and it turned out he had a gorgeous voice and when it was finished we clasped hands. “This is a great way to travel!” he said, turning back to his friends.
So you see, chaos is not all bad. Not all.
South Africa by the numbers
1. Labia Majora and Labia Minora, indie movie theaters (excuse me, “teaters”)
2. SMEG, a consumer electronics store
3. CUMbooks, a Christian bookstore because obviously