Tuesday, November 16, 2010

On My Own


I’m kind of freaking out right now.
I’m freaking out because there’s a crazy man limping around the square in front of me , dispensing very loud advice about snakes. The snakes, man. The snakes. If you meet one of these snakes, Mr. Squirrel, don’t you try to fight it. It will win and you will lose. What kind of snake will kill you, you ask? Well, there’s the King Cobra. That fucker will kill you dead, my friend. Dead. He’ll rise up like this (raises his arm slowly, wrist cocked) and BAM! (strikes). And that’s it, man. Show’s over. Ok, I’m moving benches now. I can’t handle this. Thanks for the nightmare material - as if I wasn’t terrified of African snakes enough. 
I’m also freaking out because I yelled at someone today. I mean really yelled. I never yell, and I yelled loud enough to stop a whole street’s worth of activity. This man on Darling St. started following me in front of city hall, asking me for money and telling me what a beautiful, sexy girl I am. I ignored him and kept walking (as I do to all men who compliment me) and, undeterred, he ran up close, swung his arm around me, and started pinching my side. This immense terror and rage suddenly filled my lungs as I threw him off me – DON’T TOUCH ME! I screamed. It came out of me with a force I couldn’t control. Everyone else on the street stopped dead in their tracks and stared at us; he just threw up his hands and laughed. I turned and walked away as fast as I could. What’s a spectacle and a joke and shaking all over? Yours truly.
I’m also freaking out because a bunch of American tourists are taking pictures of a squirrel in front of me right now. There are squirrels in Oklahoma, guys. Go home. You’re embarrassing the rest of us. Also, the skinny jeans trend should really be applied with much more careful consideration. Just a thought.
Most of all, I’m sitting here freaking out about what I’ve gotten myself into with this trip. Since I’ve been on my own, minus an adopted family or Australian distraction, I’ve found that I get these little mini heart attacks at least once a day. I am having a great time so far – Cape Town is amazing and I’ve met even more wonderful people – but I just have these moments of completely losing my shit. And unfortunately I’m having one right now. A typical session goes something like this:
What the hell am I doing here?  What is the point of this whole insane idea? And how am I going to do this for a year? Ok so I can get through today, and probably tomorrow or even this week, but what was I thinking with the big world tour thing? And how am I so disorganized and unprepared and indecisive? Who let me do this on my own? I can’t decide what to do next. There are so many options. There’s so much to see and so much to do and I don’t have enough time or money or organizational skills to do it right. Someone else would do this trip so much better than me. They would have a plan and a goal and clue. And more money. Oh god, the money. I should have saved up for like 10 years before doing something like this. I’m going to be broke before I leave Cape Town. And I should have packed better stuff. And less stuff. I have so much stuff! And I should have had an inkling of what the hell I was doing before I jumped on that plane. How am I going to figure this out as I go? I’m already locked in indecision – everyone I’ve met says I have to see this and that and everything under the sun. Do I do the Garden Route or the Wild Coast or Kruger Park or Namibia or Tanzania or Victoria Falls? Should I change my ticket? Should I do an overland trek? Are you kidding? You’re not equipped for that. Why the fuck didn’t I equip myself for that? Or for anything. I mean, sure the hostel I’m staying in now is great and clean and safe and Cape Town has been easy and lovely, but I’m just getting spoiled. Everyone here speaks your damn language. The rest of this thing is going to be excess baggage fees and bed bugs and losing your passport. Did you really think you’d just be able to find the visas and the money and the constitution for all this waiting for you by the side of the road in South Africa? Even if you make it through Africa, you’ve got 4 more continents to go. Holy crap. And what are you going to do when you’re done with all of it? You’re just going to be another year behind everyone else without a job or a dollar or once again a clue. Oh Jesus.
Yeah. Really fun, huh? And oh so productive.
I need to take a big, deep breath. Sitting on this bench and having a silent little fit isn’t getting me anywhere. It is, however, teaching me things about myself that could use a little work while I’m out and about this year. Turns out I’m just a little more neurotic than I’d hoped… and just as indecisive as I feared.  Maybe I’ve been spending too much time in New York. I need to get back in touch with my inner Vermonter. Or Capetonian, for that matter. I need to focus on all of the fantastic things I’ve seen so far and all the lovely people I’ve met. I need to be present in South Africa – right here, right now. I need to chillax.
So far Cape Town really has been divine. It’s about as chillax as a city can be (minus the quasi-constant worry over crime and safety). Everywhere you go, people smile and ask you how your day has been. Everything around here is done at a relaxed pace (sometimes much to the annoyance of the locals, apparently) and the city never really feels like a city. Everything is governed by the beautiful natural surroundings; it just wouldn’t make sense to rush through life here (note to American self). Cape Town is unbelievably gorgeous, no matter what the weather, which is good, seeing as though the weather is different from one minute to the next. Table Mountain alone is an ever-changing goddess. She’s not just a mountain. With a rolling blanket of thick white clouds spilling over her beautiful, rocky face, she provides the most stunning background everywhere you go. She follows you all over the city. She watches over you. I’m pretty sure she’s the one reminding me to take a chill pill right now.
I spent yesterday finally really getting to know the layout of city. I wandered through the peaceful Company Gardens and marveled at the photography exhibits in the National Gallery – some of the most amazing snapshots of the human experience I’ve seen. I navigated the streets of the City Bowl and walked to the lovely V & A Waterfront, despite everyone I asked for directions regarding me with a quizzical stare… Why would you walk to the waterfront? Everyone just takes a taxi. It’s really not far at all. I honestly have no idea why they don’t walk there - apparently that’s the one instance in which Capetonians are not totally physically active. The waterfront is pristine and pleasant and tailor-made for tourists. You can eat and shop and take great pictures of Table Mountain from its docks. My mom would be a big fan. I had lunch at a wonderful little garden cafĂ© nearby and wrote for a while over a bree and avo and bacon sandwich to die for. That part of town feels like DUMBO in Brooklyn – cobblestone streets and great little shops leading down to the water. I was in heaven.
Today I went to the District 6 museum, which tells the story of the old Cape Town neighborhood from which Natives (blacks), Coloureds (people of mixed race), and Indians were displaced under the Groups Areas Act of 1950, declaring it a whites only zone. While the history of District 6 that’s housed in the museum is affecting enough, even more astounding is the actual area itself, located behind the museum, which is almost completely empty and devoid of development. The white minority rule removed thousands of people from District 6 with the intention of making it an all-white neighborhood, only to level it and leave. They just never got around to turning into anything. All of those people were shipped out into the extreme poverty of the townships, literally for nothing. Hard to fathom.
The museum itself is truly special. It lives inside an old church building, with creaking wooden floors, and gorgeous stained glass. Every inch of the walls there is covered in stories and photographs of the lives of the exiled residents. The history of District 6 and the entrenchment of apartheid in South Africa is written on revolving panels, complete with examples of real identification documents people were required to carry: White, Coloured, Indian, Black. Get caught without it and you’d be arrested on the spot; get all of your friends to walk into a police station and destroy it simultaneously to clog up the jails, and you get Mandela’s revolution. A beautiful white sheet, embroidered with the names and comments of ex-residents, hangs from the rafters and a map of the old District 6 is painted on the floor. In the back room, the heart-wrenchingly beautiful words of District 6 residents who wrote during the years of apartheid, or lived to write about it in the aftermath, make up a mosaic of poetry-covered tiles called the “Writing Floor”. Their work took my breath away.
Tomorrow I’m going on a township tour, to the shantytown areas where those displaced and disenfranchised South African families were forced to move. I’ve been told it is an amazing and moving experience. I hope my heart can handle it... Not that walking through certain areas of Bed Stuy in Brooklyn is all that different – I’ve seen those children and heard Emma’s stories from teaching them, and America is not as much better as we’d like to think.
Almost more impactful than the things I’ve seen, are the fabulous friends I’m making here. My hostel, Ashanti Lodge, is a fantastic place to hang your hat – if you’re ever in Cape Town, look it up. I can only hope the rest of the places I stay will be half as great. Ashanti is this big, yellow mansion of a house, with a pool, a bar, a deck with views of Table Mountain, a travel desk, clean rooms, and nice, hot showers (numero uno backpacker priority in my opinion). And the people there are lovely – the staff is super helpful and the crew of travellers revolving through the rooms is awesome.
I’ve fallen in love with a British girl named Marnie (or “Maahnie”) who hauled her equally enormous backpack (yay!) onto the bed next to mine earlier this week. She just finished a stint as an animal conservation volunteer at one of the national parks near Port Elizabeth and she’s heading to Australia for a year after doing South Africa coast to coast. She’s tiny, and looks maybe 22, but has apparently just come face to face with the big 3-0. After ending a very long, serious relationship earlier this year, she decided to “fuck all” and jump on a plane to South Africa. She loses at least 1 belonging on a daily basis, does what her heart tells her, and makes me nearly pee my pants laughing. My kind of girl.
Aside from Marnie, there’s chic Mathilde from France, chill Tom from Holland, worldly Jo, also from Holland (the local language, Afrikaans is baby Dutch, so Cape Town is crawling with them), lovely Fiona from England, and spunky Dee from Germany… all with their own travel plan, interesting history, and reason for being in South Africa. Some of them have already left or are leaving soon, unfortunately, but all have offered me a place to stay in their home country – and most of them will actually be there by the time I arrive. The whole experience of this hostel is a lot like college, without the studying, or camp, without the rules. Everyone’s pretty much on the same daily schedule and everyone’s there mostly to have a good time. Sounds terrible, right? It makes a ton of sense that I’m spending a good portion of my day freaking out, huh?
So I’m going to take a big, deep breath. I’m going to take some pictures around this beautiful garden I’m sitting in. I’m going to let everything I’m experiencing seep into my bones. I’m going to pull off this trip half-cocked because that’s how I go into everything, and it’s all turned out ok. I’m going to decide on a plan and just go with it. I’m going to get in touch with my inner Capetonian. I’m going to chillax.

Monday, November 8, 2010

With the Aussie

The Australian

So it took me all of about 30 seconds into life on my own in South Africa to break the cardinal rule of solo female travelling: Don’t get into a car with a strange man you’ve just met… Whoops.
I met the Australian as we were both checking in to my new hostel downtown. We exchanged Nice to meet yous and Where are you froms and then headed off to our respective rooms to settle in, only to emerge into the lobby again at the exact same time.  I was on my way to buy groceries and a proper converter plug (thanks for nothing STA office) and he was dying for some lunch. He asked if I wanted to grab a bite together before heading our separate ways, and I said sure – what’s another couple of rand (SA currency) out the window for lunch with a nice Aussie guy?
During lunch we bonded over our mutual love of photography and travel - it only took us a few minutes to get over our instant Nikon (or “Nickon”) vs. Canon rivalry. Turns out he’s a security software salesman who travels all over the world for work and spends his free time abroad staying in hostels (to meet people) and snapping amazing photos. We talked about his experiences riding in South American buses, my uncle’s stint as a pro basketball player for his hometown team (The Brisbane Bullets), and how annoying American tourists can be (myself not included, of course). After lunch, he said he had rented a car and was planning to head down the coast to Simonstown to check out the penguin colony… Did I want to come?
I thought about it for a second. This could definitely be one of those Pollyanna moments where I trust someone I barely know, like the country bumpkin that I am, and end up sold into sex slavery. If my parents could make only one request of my trip, it would be that I not do this exact thing right now. Mom would have a coronary: For the love of God, at least go with some other girls so you have half a chance in hell of getting out alive together… He seems very nice and normal, though. And this trip on a group tour will cost me a couple of hundred rand… Guess I just better not tell Mom about it until after I get out alive.
Ok then, sure – thanks. And we were off, in his little white rented Ford (yeah, super lame SA rental car, I know), headed down the M4 to False Bay. Our little detour felt like exactly the kind of fun, adventurous happenstance situation I’d been hoping to run into on this trip, much to my parents’ dismay. And my gut-instinct alarm remained silent as we drove – which certainly didn’t prove I hadn’t just made a huge mistake –  but something told me this Aussie just wanted my company, not my vital organs in a cooler.
We stopped at an amazing kite festival in Muizenberg, discussed polarizing lenses as we took beautiful beach photos in the village of Fish Hoek, and hopped the fence at the Boulders Penguin Sanctuary in Simonstown… It was closing time when we finally arrived, but we figured the penguins didn’t automatically disappear into the ocean when the gift shop closed. It was supposed to be their mating season, but there was sadly no penguin porn to be had – turns out they do it with the curtains closed. We did discover, however, that they have no qualms whatsoever about taking a simultaneous giant white dump right in front of your lens as you’re about to take a photo. We got the message: The gift shop is closed for business and so are we – piss off.
After Simonstown, we drove back into the city and found an Italian restaurant in Green Point (by the big, new soccer stadium) for dinner – they were having a special of two entries and two glasses of wine for R99 ($14)! As we twirled our very un-South African fettuccini around busy forks, we dove straight into “the big five” (as they call the major safari animals here), as if we’d known each other for years: we talked about life, death, happiness, sex, and our biggest fears.
He explained that I’d find him very different from the average Australian guy when I finally make my way to Oz next summer. Rather than going to college, he’d spent years exploring alternative methods to achieving one’s best possible self, his idea of happiness is balance (with plenty of introspection), and he’s worked as a hotline counselor for troubled youth back home. He’s even considering a career in relationship counseling in the future. The average Aussie guy likes beer and sport and automatically considers him gay, and the average Aussie girl doesn’t know what to make of him. I explained that he would probably encounter much the same thing in America, and the rest of the western world for that matter - we’re not so good with men who don’t stick to one end of the gender role spectrum. His big fear, after years of learning to objectively analyze emotions (his own and others’), was that he’d become too rational and detached to ever be able to feel real love for someone. Mine was that I love all the wrong people. We were quite the little pair.
Back at the hostel, we exchanged numbers and said goodnight. I thanked him for letting me tag along on his adventure and for not trying to kill me. He thanked me for not being a standoffish American and saying yes to his offer, and as for the murdering bit, he explained today was just about buttering me up for the big event tomorrow: Sleep well, Wesley – most likely kill you in the morning. As you wish, I replied.
The next day we headed down the peninsula again in the little white Ford, which we were grateful to find still in one piece outside the hostel. This time we drove down the Atlantic on the M6 to gorgeous Camps Bay, Hout Bay and Noordhoek. That area is the Amalfi Coast of South Africa – amazing cliff town after amazing cliff town, culminating in the spectacular Chapman’s Peak Drive. Thankfully, everyone drives about 100 mph less on CPD than they do on the winding cliff roads in Italy – you actually get to enjoy the incredible scenery without wanting to toss your cookies the whole time. We stopped about every five minutes to take pictures and spot dolphins in the bay – turns out two photographers on a trip does not a speedy journey make.
Along the way, we encountered a group of rowdy teenagers on a secluded beach who wanted to know how long we’d been married and whether we were going to put them on TV in America. Ooo, ooo pick me! Pick me!, they shouted. As they got closer and started reaching for our cameras, we decided we had filled our idiot tourist quotient for the day and should exnay on the beachstay before getting ourselves rightfully mugged. It’s amazing how a beautiful place can make you feel safer than you really are and lead you to do dumb things. It’s also amazing how remembering that a place is known for danger can make you assume everyone who gets a little too close is a threat.
A little further down the coast, I spoke to a very sweet man selling curios by the cliff side. He, too, was from Malawi and had come to South Africa to find work among the mass of tourists. He encouraged me not to get lost in the easy western beauty of Cape Town and South Africa. Cape town is not Africa, he said. If you want to see Africa, you must go deeper into the continent than just here. It’s very easy… you can fly. This time, I knew he wasn’t talking about the universal “you”. I can fly. I thanked him for the advice, and dreamt of East Africa as the Aussie sped us down the coast.
Despite our pit stops, we still managed to make it make it down to the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve before dark. Following a tip we got from the travel desk at our hostel, we turned off the main road that leads down to Cape Point to follow a side road, rumored to be the hangout spot for the few zebra, baboons, ostrich, and antelope that populate the reserve. Much to our luck, that little offshoot provided us with a lot of animal sightings, including our first zebra! We also got to hang out with a pack of baboons on a beach for a while – after seeing warning signs about their dangerous behavior all over the cape, we were happily treated to a hilarious round of hide and seek all over our car by a bunch of babies. The Vermonter in me wanted to reach out and touch them; the New Yorker in me decided to keep all my fingers. 
After extracting several monkeys from our windshield, we continued down to the Cape of Good Hope point, where Diaz rounded the tip of Africa, and I nearly crapped my pants trying to get down from the adjacent mountain. I climbed up at the urging of the Aussie and got down holding onto him for dear life. It felt a lot like the time a group of older boys talked me into riding The Comet rollercoaster with them at The Great Escape park back home. Never again, never again. Thankfully, the Aussie did a good job hiding his judgment of my pathetic meltdown on the mountain, which made it all a little less distressing.
Before leaving, we took another detour to the west coast of the reserve to watch the sun set into the ocean. Very cool, but no pictures, unfortunately. We decided we’d never be able to capture it, so we gave our cameras a much-needed break and just enjoyed watching the African sun slowly bleed away into cold Atlantic waters.
The Australian left the next day, but not before giving me his contact info, an assurance I had place to stay in Brisbane, and a giant bear hug. It had all turned out ok. I was in procession of all body parts and my freedom. Not bad for a potential Pollyanna moment.
 A lot of things seem harmless but aren’t; a lot of things seem dangerous but aren’t. Unfortunately, especially here in South Africa, we often seem keen to recall the former and forget the latter. I guess it’s really about living somewhere in the middle… Or at least living somewhere as beautiful as this, where you forget the whole damn thing and just live.