Friday, October 29, 2010

The Gersons

This is all just waaaaaaay too easy. There must be a catch. I was honestly kind of hoping the other shoe would just hit me in the face on the way off of the plane so that I wouldn’t have to wait for it later. But it hasn’t really worked out that way.
I was expecting to be miserable and riddled with cramps after the epic flight from New York. I was expecting to be hassled by immigration about my plans to eventually exit the country, and customs about whatever the hell I packed in that ridiculous bag. I was expecting to have to lug my crap across Johannesburg international airport, only to be told that I’d need to pay an extra $100 because my bag weighed over the limit for the domestic flight to Cape Town. I was expecting my international cell not to work, thanks to its demonstration of moody unpredictability back in the States. I was expecting to have a rough time getting from the airport to the home of the people I’d be staying with for my first few days in Cape Town, people whom I’d never met or even talked to.
Let me tell you, low expectations are the way to go. Get what you figured or be pleasantly surprised… or maybe even get the most incredible view of your life, the most generous hospitality imaginable, and a seriously kickass shower. No kidding, this shower was the shit.
The Gersons are fantastic. They literally took me in on a day’s notice after my aunt, Paige, who’d met Lani Gerson on a beach in Connecticut a few years ago, emailed them to ask if they wouldn’t mind hosting me as I got my Cape Town bearings. She and my mom couldn’t stand the idea of me landing in some sketchy hostel in a foreign country on day one – they needed to know real people would catch me as I stumbled into Africa. In true South African fashion, the Gersons said sure thing.
Their house is unreal. They live on the main road up to Table Mountain from the city, in a beautiful, super modern home they built themselves, with a view to die for. Just from the window in my room, I could see the entire city, the ocean, and Table Mountain. The view from the front wall of their home, which is made entirely of glass, is just ridiculous.
I arrived at their house while the whole family was out and about, and was let in and shown to my room by their housekeepers, Winnie and Fred. All I wanted in the world after 20+ hours of travel was a nap on a real bed and a hot shower, and it became clear very quickly that I had hit the weary person’s jackpot. Unfortunately, I was half way through said luxurious hot shower (in my own personal bathroom!) when I realized I was flooding the place. Two hours into my stay with a family I’d never met and I was destroying their home. Excellent.
I went out into the house to find brilliantly red-headed and super-hiply dressed Lani, who assured me that it was no big deal – they’d been having an issue with it for a while. She apologized for not having Winnie and Fred tell me; they would work on fixing it tomorrow. Crisis averted.
After that, I met her teenaged son, Josh, and husband, Barry. They were all incredibly warm and inviting, and I was treated to an unbelievable homemade vegetarian dinner as we discussed the totally drinkable water and utterly confusing socket converters here in Cape Town. The city below us had turned to glowing light and Table Mountain stood as a giant silhouette against the night sky. It was stunning. I was really here.
The next morning I headed down to their huge porch that looks out onto all of Cape Town to take some pictures. I got a few good shots, soaked in the grandeur, and then heard Barry tell Winnie and Fred to fetch me breakfast. What can we get you madam? Oh, err, um… I can just get it myself – don’t worry about it. Oh, no, we make it for you. Hmmmk.
Knowing that I was in a meat and dairy-free household and hoping not to make them do anything too involved, I asked for some toast. Well, I got four enormous pieces of toast, two with marmalade and two with avocado (or avo as they say here), plus a huge bowl filled to capacity with papaya. Apparently they think I’m nutrient deficient and lacking in mass. As I went to work on the heap of food in front of me, I asked Winnie if she had always lived in South Africa. I don’t live in South Africa. Oh… right, ok… then where do you live? I’m from Malawi. Three or four days by bus from here. Oh… ok. But you live here now? I work here. I go home to Malawi once a year for 21 days. 7 or 8 days is travel. My kids are in Malawi – 20, 18, and 15 years… You can take a plane there – it’s only two hours. Oh, do you do that often? No.Never. I mean you could take a plane there. She said all of this with a big, vacant grin on her face as each slice she made into a new papaya oozed orange onto her white cutting board. It was the kind of forced smile I used to wear as a bartender in New York, pretending to listen to whatever advice the business man sitting across from me was offering on how to survive in the big, bad world.
I felt a catch in my throat and just nodded. She looked at me like, Don’t waste your energy, darling. It was too damn early in the trip for this. I figured I could handle an “other side of the tracks” story, but “It’s 4 days by bus to see my children once a year “ was a little much for me over avo and toast. This wasn't just a South Africa problem, it was an Africa one. Maybe this was the other shoe – not having my passport stolen, but having my heart broken little by little by this beautiful continent.
Later that day, Lani took me for a drive and I was introduced to the South African shopping mall. Turns out everyone here lets you take home whatever you’re thinking about buying to try it out. Go show your husband these frames, this tank top, these curtains and see what he thinks – I’ll see you in a few days, I’m sure. South African trust seems amazing for a place with notorious people problems. Lani had forgotten something she needed in the car in the parking garage, and when I volunteered to go get it, I realized that I was walking alone for the first time in some place other than an airport here. I clutched her car keys between my fingers, ready to jab at eyes if necessary. But nothing happened. It was pretty much just like walking through a mall/parking deck anywhere else. I felt kind of dumb.
After picking Josh up from the American International School (which I’m imagining as a kick-ass place to work… note to self), we had another lovely veggie dinner together, this time joined by their friend, Avril. She and Lani have travelled a lot together and, as they’d been to several spots I’m planning to go, they gave me some tips. Regarding the super pushy Egyptian venders (a.k.a. everyone there, apparently): Just tell them to fuck off really, really loudly, they explained. You’re also going to get ripped off in Istanbul, just so you know. And always watch out for the water – that’s what will get you. Oh, and bring your own damn toilet paper! Most importantly, I was taught the Avril glare. It’s pretty scary, not gonna lie. She explained that one glance like the one she has perfected (a complete and total death stare) and you won’t have to learn how to tell people to fuck off really, really loudly in any language at all. The glare is universal.
On Saturday, Lani dropped me off on Long St., the main drag in Cape Town, to see if I could find myself a “proper backpackers” (so far all the new terms and phrases are my favorite part of travelling). I spent all afternoon going up and down the street, liking the vibe but kind of bumming over my hostel options. They were all nice and cheap, but generally kind of grungy and full of 18 year olds. I stopped to watch some amazing young girls sing in Greenmarket Square and read a bit of my Time Out Cape Town magazine (it’s everywhere!). They suggested the Ashanti Lodge, which was only a little bit further from the absolute center of town than the others. I made the trek over to Hof St. and found backpacker heaven. I immediately booked a room for the next day and relieved myself of feeling like I was taking advantage of the Gerson’s lovely hospitality. More about awesome Ashanti later.
Over dinner that night, I was given the rundown on the Black Empowerment system and xenophobic issues the country is facing. Barry likened Black Empowerment to America’s affirmative action and said that it mandated race quotas (generally reflective of the racial makeup of the population) for South African businesses. Because many blacks haven’t been provided the education necessary to succeed in the jobs they're given preference for under the system, a kind of unfortunate cycle has arisen. The policy has also pushed a lot of young, educated white people to look elsewhere in the world for a living, resulting in a major South African “brain drain”. At the same time, people from other countries (like Malawi) are coming here because it’s where the jobs are, and the locally underprivileged haven’t been taking it so well. In the past few years, a great deal of xenophobic violence has broken out in South Africa. Earlier that afternoon, while discussing the trouble she’s been having  getting the routine straight with their new housekeepers (Winnie and Fred), Lani explained that their last one had left the area after much of his family was brutally attacked – one of his cousins had his arm sliced open from top to bottom just for trying to go to the store. Not exactly the apartheid-free utopia everyone's hoped for. At least not yet.
On Sunday I thanked my host family again for their amazing generosity and took advantage of Lani’s very kind offer to drop me at my new place. My adventures in Cape Town were just beginning.


  1. From what I've heard, the Gersons aren't so wonderful as you think. When they lived in Short Hills, New Jersey (United States), they didn't treat dark-skinned people very well. Actually, very poorly. I'm sure Winnie and Fred are not as happy as you may have been led to believe.

    It's great that they showed you a good time. But, you should know that there seems to be more going on in that household than you think.

    -And by the way, I'm a white person from New Jersey, USA. I know this from a reliable source.

  2. I thought about the comment further and I apologize. It was inappropriate for me to post that above. Please remove it (I'm not sure how). My apologies.