Monday, November 8, 2010

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.

1 comment:

  1. So true! Difficult to keep the balance of appropriate "fear" and needless worrying. I'm sure you will find the balance and remain in the moment, as you say. That is so funny about the monkeys -- I can't picture it at all. I'm about to go flip through your photos and hope to see what you're talking about. I would have DEFINITELY struggled with the urge to tickle their fuzzy little heads... how did you resist? You better pet some exotic fuzzy animal while you're there... on my behalf if nothing else!