Return (VII)

1.18.2016

Leopard tortoise (Stigmochelys pardalis); Kaokoveld, Namibia; December 2015.


Quivis greets us in the morning, and he's just as talkative and just as self-absorbed as last night, but he's so friendly about it that it's hard to break away and finish packing up camp. I ask a question about South African politics and he's all-too-eager to share his two or twenty or two hundred cents, and it's not long before he's speaking rather frankly about his distaste for Jacob Zuma and the whole ANC party in a thick colonial accent. Please don't say something racist; please don't say something racist, I think to myself as he speaks, but sure enough he does, or just about, and we suddenly realize how late it's gotten and how quickly we have to be back in Cape Town.

We continue on the N7 back the way we came, and I find I've learned quite a bit about driving in this past month. I've gone days without stalling out and weeks without any real car trouble, and I maneuver us up and down and around the mountains of western South Africa without anxiety, without commotion, and most importantly, without stalling out halfway along that mountain pass that so tried us on our way north. We pass baboons having a sit-down in the middle of the road, and a little further up we have a sit-down on the side of the road, a little picnic of peanut butter sandwiches and seltzer and whatever scraps of food remain in our trunk. We ensure everything is stowed away in our packs, complete a final sweep of the truck, and just a few hours later, pass the keys to our rental agent on the outskirts of Cape Town.

It's cool in Cape Town, chilly even, with a hurried breeze and some fluffy clouds and the smell of sea not far off. We take a cab to the city center and meet our Airbnb host, who shows us up to a cozy little flat that'll be ours for the next four nights. It's simple, but certainly roomier than the tent we've just parted with, and from the tenth-floor window we have marvelous views of the clouds spilling down Table Mountain like an airy waterfall. We unpack our things and we shower and we rest and, later on, we head out for a delicious Ethiopian dinner before calling it an early night.

***

After five thousand miles inside a noisy, rumbling, squelching box, it feels wonderful to enjoy Africa by simpler means. We leave our flat the next morning on foot, and it's quiet and calm and clean. We rent bicycles and little touches of joy tingle up my spine as I push off the ground and begin to spin—it feels so long since I've last been on a bike. We roll toward Cape Town's waterfront and pass idly by its beaches and boardwalks, and it feels not unlike southern California in its pleasantry. Nor its hills. Our route rises into a posh neighborhood and we push hard against the pedals, following the gentle curve of the road and the coast and the valley west of Signal Hill. We're flanked by South African cyclists in their kit jerseys and aero helmets on their Saturday morning sprints, and soon the climb crests and the road dips and we're flying down the other side with the sea to our right and the mountains to our left and the salty breeze in our faces.

We make it to Camp's Bay, a little south of the city, before stopping for lunch. We sit on the beach and rest before a difficult ride back, this one routing to the pass between Signal Hill and Table Mountain—steep, trafficked, and windy the whole way. We make it back, eventually, and we return the bikes and a little later head out for dinner with a friend of Lauren's from high school studying in Cape Town, her mother, and her partner. It's a late, lovely evening of jazz, wine, and conversation.

***

The next day, Robben Island. The infamous island on which Nelson Mandela and others were imprisoned for decades under apartheid, I expect the place to be a bit of a tourist trap, but Lauren would like to go and it promises a nice ferry ride on Cape Town shores and there's certainly a lot to appreciate there, so I agree.

We pay a hefty admission and wait in a long line and board a packed ferry and set sail for the horizon, some seven kilometers south. Seals jump out of the water and the view behind us is breathtaking: blue skies, turquoise waters, and a majestic Table Mountain perched high above the small city whence we came. It's a rocky ride, but we're up on deck and the fresh air helps some, and thirty or forty minutes later we dock at Robben Island and I'm feeling just the slightest bit queasy from the waves.

The first thing one sees upon disembarking at the anti-apartheid monument is the toilet, a humble white building with a door on the left side and a door on the right side and a sign over each, the former reading "female only" and the latter reading "male only," and it's a curious sight. It's certainly not unusual, sadly, but it does conjure up all-too-familiar imagery of the "blacks only" and "coloureds only" and "whites only" signs above bathrooms on this very island not too long ago. Sure, South African apartheid may be a thing of the past (if only in a de jure sense), but here and back on the mainland and just about everywhere else, we still cling to separate-but-equal wherever we can. In a world with unisex phone booths and unisex buses and unisex elevators and unisex doctor's offices, it's a shame we can't agree that we're mature enough for unisex toilet stalls too—if not for the much-needed protection and convenience of our trans and genderqueer communities, then at least for the practicality of shorter lines and space savings.

But alas, here I am staring at hypocrisy, and the crowds wander by unphased. They're heading to the buses, a series of large coaches just a few hundred meters away, and Lauren and I follow the orders over the PA system to walk toward them as well. We assume they're shuttles, perhaps bringing us closer to the island infrastructure, but once we board one and the doors close we learn that we're mistaken: these are tour buses, and they're the only way to see the island.

I groan. Robben Island is but five square kilometers, and if I'm going to travel it at all I'd like for it to be the way its inhabitants did: on foot, not crammed into an air-conditioned coach with a tour guide reciting well-worn trivia and quips from up front. But here we are, and the guide speaks, and she tells us we'll be stopping at a few points of interest along the way—not to learn about or appreciate or admire or ponder—but "to take pictures."

And take pictures they do. The crowds around me heave to the right as we pass the mosque and heave to the left as we pass the barracks, and they press up against the bus's narrow windows and click away without discernment. A grown man in a fedora screws his camera onto a rod and holds the selfie stick out into the aisle to take photographs of himself on a bus, and I lean my head against Lauren and shut my eyes.

We get off the bus a few times for just a few minutes each, never long enough to read any markings or exhibits, just enough to take snapshots, review them, and climb back onboard. Eventually we're dropped at the prison and turned over to a former inmate at Robben Island, and this gets a little more interesting. He talks about his time there and the daily routine, and he talks about the prison's closing and the prison's history, and we huddle around him in one of the prison's larger dorms and listen intently—all of us except the grown man with the hat and the selfie stick, who's off in the corner snapping photographs of himself.

The tour concludes with a walk past Mandela's former cell, and though it's identical to the thirty or forty other cells on the block housing prisoners who suffered just as badly, the throng congeals at just the one: more flashing cameras, more meaningless archiving and documenting. We're returned to the dock, and it has been about two hours, and I'm thankful to leave the active desecration of this poor place.

We climb back onboard a newer boat and speed off into choppy waters. We're below deck this time, and it's bumpy, and dozens of us quickly grow seasick, groaning in unison as the ferry hits a particularly large or sidelong wave. It's a faster boat, at least, and I'm thankful that we'll get back to shore more quickly. I stare out the window at our wake, and in just twenty short minutes we're pulling up to land: slowing, docking, tying up. I head out to the deck to have a look.

Ahead of me, those same segregated bathrooms on the very same dock from which we've left. There's a murmur of confusion amongst the passengers, and after a good deal of prompting, one of the ferry men admits that some passengers were "forgotten" back on Robben Island. Though there are ferries coming and going every half-hour, each boat coming from the mainland is—unwisely but profitably—packed to the absolute legal maximum number of passengers, meaning that a stranded visitor can't just hop on the next boat back, but that the crew they come in with must be the crew they leave with, no exceptions. The forgotten passengers board (oddly, there are at least twenty or thirty of them), and once more we take off into the rough cape waters, this time for a proper thirty minutes back to land. We're nearly sick upon arrival.

***

I didn't care for Robben Island—don't care for much of Cape Town, honestly, with its Cecil Rhodes statues and simmering racism bubbling up at every corner—but Table Mountain I adore. All weekend we've rounded its curves and rested in its shadow, and my one hope in town is to hike to its plateau before leaving South Africa. Alas, it's not in the cards. It's been nothing but wind since arriving in Cape Town—not the gentle baybreeze type, but the thirty-mile-per-hour katabatic type—and though it can't do more than knock over a chalkboard or kick up some dust down at sea level, it's enough to blow someone clean off the plateau up at higher elevations. Warnings are issued and the Table Mountain cable car is closed, and instead of a blustery nature hike for our last day in Cape Town, we opt for a blustery walk to the east side instead. We stroll toward Woodstock, a neat neighborhood with exceptional street art and cascading murals hidden around every corner, and back toward the Company's Gardens, and we read and we talk and we grab sushi for dinner, and a little later on we pack our things and clean the flat and get ready for a long, long flight home.

Then early the next morning, off we go.

Spitzkoppe, Namibia; December 2015.

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