For my last day, I had booked a bus tour of the Cape of Good Hope, with several stops at cool places along the way.
We set off around 8 AM, in pouring rain. Our guide, Sele, was cheerful despite the weather, and pointed out all sorts of features and towns and scenic views, most of which were completely invisible through the rain and foggy windows. The first stop was Seal Island. We all got on this tiny boat and sputtered out to the “island,” which was really a cluster of rocks in the middle of the bay where a colony of seals were hanging out on the rocks and playing in the water. My brain was in danger of exploding from the cuteness. It had sort of stopped raining, and I got some good pictures and video, despite the fact that the water was so choppy I could barely keep my footing.
Our next stop was Simontown, which is the home of Boulders National Park, where a colony of African penguins live. You heard me right. Penguins. In Africa. Also totally freaking adorable.
By the time we got to the wildlife preserve surrounding the Cape itself for our picnic lunch, it had started raining pretty hard again, so we all voted to skip the optional bike ride through the park. But I decided that, rain or no rain, I couldn’t NOT hike up Cape Point itself, so a group of the more daring (or perhaps foolhardy) among us set off. If Sele hadn’t lent me his extra rain jacket I don’t know if I could have made it, since it was pouring rain and really cold. As it was, we had no desire to linger at the top, despite the spectacular views. By this point we were so cold and wet that we were thoroughly ready to leave, so we had a damp, chilly ride of about an hour and a half back to town.
I’d been asking about switching to a private room every day, but that morning was the first time there was a vacancy. So when I got back, I was soaked and shivering, but delighted to move all of my stuff out of the dormitory. With a scalding hot shower and dry clothes, I felt almost human again. I was meeting one of the guys from the conference and a professor from Cape Town University for dinner that night, and had been promised the best game steakhouse in South Africa. I was looking forward to this, because I was dying to try ostrich steak, but it was booked, so we had to settle for Italian.
Several of the Long Street people had been taking a parallel tour, and we’d run into them at every stop that day. They’d invited me to a Halloween party at their hostel, so after dinner I walked into a fierce beer pong tournament, where the owner of the hostel forcibly adorned me with a ridiculously long stocking cap, since I didn’t have a costume. Since I never even played beer pong in college, this wasn’t *exactly* my thing, so I ended up going to this bar called Mama Africa, which featured lots of African kitsch and a traditional percussion band that involved 4 ginormous xylophones. They were terrific. At one point a guy brought out a cowbell and started using it as a percussion instrument, which was good, because the entire time I’d been thinking that the performance could use more cowbell.
It was a great last night. Sadly, I woke up the next morning with a hacking, uncontrollable cough, runny nose, and sinuses that felt on the verge of exploding. I could no longer pretend it was allergies; I was honest-to-god sick, with a 35 hour itinerary ahead of me. I was coughing and sneezing and miserable the entire time, despite drinking an entire bottle of cough syrup during my 8 hour layover in Heathrow. When I FINALLY got to Newark around 10 PM the next day, I of course got in line at one of those really conscientious passport control guys who pores overs your documents, holds them up to the light, squints and looks at them sideways, examines the photo minutely to make sure it’s actually you, and asks a million questions. Since the the Law of Lines dictates that as soon as you change lines, the one you’ve left starts moving, while the new one comes to a screeching halt, I stayed put. I was also too much of a zombie to be bothered to do more than shuffle forward 6 inches at a time.
Finally, I was next. There was an Indian couple directly ahead of me who were naturalized American citizens, whose accents seemed to make the guy suspicious. He asked an exhaustive series of questions about their vacation in Italy, like “Why were you in Rome?”, “What was the name of your hotel?” “What was your exact itinerary after leaving?”, “Do you prefer Roman pizza crust or Napolitan?” I’m kidding about the last, but it was excruciating. When it was my turn, I was fully prepared to be accused of carrying a false passport. In that photo I was about 10 lbs heavier, which shows in my face, and my hair, which is now dark and down the middle of my back, was was pixie-short and red. I was also wearing baggy jeans, stained pumas, a threadbare t-shirt with the name of a band on it that no one has ever heard of, and a hoodie with a rip in the sleeve. My hair was in braided pigtails that I hadn’t tended to in 2 days, and so had ragged wisps of hair coming out and flying all around my face. Add my bloodshot eyes, snotty nose, and cough that prevented me from getting out more than a sentence at a time, and I was a sorry sight. I’d checked “business” on my landing card for the “reason for traveling” box, and when I handed him my documents, he looked at me skeptically and our exchange went something like this:
Passport Control Guy: “What sort of “business” were YOU on in South Africa?” [I could hear the formatting in his voice]
Me: “I’m a histo—hackhackcoughcoughaggggghhhhhphlegm.”
Me: “I’m a historian and was at an—coughphlegmcoughhack—academic conference.”
PCG: “Okay, move along.”
That was it. I was pretty sure he just waved me through because he didn’t want to catch the plague.
I finally made it back to Philly around midnight. It was an amazing 10 days. I’ve had a bad case of post-conference blues, and I really can’t wait to go back.
I woke up the day after I got robbed in a cheerful mood. Not only was I feeling much healthier, I was going to Robben Island, the prison where Nelson Mandela served 18 of his 27 years of incarceration. I had read his autobiography, “A Long Walk to Freedom,” shortly before I left, and I highly recommend it. Of course there were many freedom fighters who helped bring down apartheid, but Mandela accomplished more from a jail cell than most people do in their entire lives. The man more or less ran the African National Congress from a prison cell on a lonely island at the tip of the world.
It took longer than I thought to walk to the V&A waterfront, where I was supposed to catch a ferry at 9. I was running along the docks, periodically stopping to ask directions from people who stared incredulously at me when I yelled “Thanks!” over my shoulder as I sprinted away. I arrived at the museum at 9:00 on the dot, breathless and drenched in sweat, only to stand in line for 45 minutes while they waited for the ferry to arrive.
The ride took about an hour, through drizzling rain and choppy water. The tour was supposed to start with a bus ride around the island itself, and end with a guided tour through the prison, led by a former inmate. I asked the bus driver if I had time to use the restroom before the bus left, and he assured me that he would not leave without all of the passengers. So of course when I got back, he had left without all of the passengers.
I was in good company, though. They’d overbooked the tour, and rather than make arrangements for the 15 or souls who hadn’t been quick enough to get a seat, they just left. There was another group gathering nearby, led by an American guy who kept yelling things like, “Get away from our group, this is a private tour!” and “This is for H.I. employees only; if you don’t know what H.I. stands for you shouldn’t be here!” and “Once again, this is a PRIVATE tour, sir, and you need to go over THERE!”
Eventually a woman who works at the prison came over and led us through the gates on foot. She was very apologetic, and decided that we’d get the tour of the prison first and do the bus ride afterwards. En route I made friends with a pair of hilarious Dutch guys who spent the entire trek making fun of the jackass American tour leader.
Our guide was a soft-spoken, gentle-seeming man named Jama:
He took us through different cell blocks, and showed us the political prisoners’ wing, which had individual cells. Every night, each prisoner was given a slop bucket, which they emptied themselves every morning. Since we were so few, Jama actually unlocked Nelson Mandela’s cell and let us go inside, which he told us they normally didn’t do for the usual groups of 50+ people. It was was tiny, and contained nothing more than a single sisal mat for sleeping, and 3 blankets.
While we were standing outside the cell, a British tourist dressed in the stereotypical khakis, high socks, and floppy hat, asked jovially, “So, what was your crime?” I wanted to kick him, not for asking the question, because I’d been wondering too, but for the way he asked it. Jama looked him straight in the eye and very, very quietly said, “I committed no crime.” The guy had the decency to look chagrined, and said, “Well, right, yes, but in their eyes, what did they imprison you for?” Jama explained that when he was 18 years old and still in high school, he helped organize a school strikes, protesting the Apartheid policy of different curricula for different races, and in particular the requirement that Afrikaans be the primary language of instruction. For this, he was convicted of terrorism and served 5 years from 1977-1982.
The Brit then asked how he’d ended up back at the prison, and Jama laughed and said that while he was imprisoned he had never imagined that he would be doing this, but circumstances had brought him back. Even the insensitive Brit didn’t press. It makes me wonder. I can see there being two types of ex-prisoner who return as a guide—one that really believes in reconciliation and wants to spread the “Never Again” message, and one forced to it because of exigent circumstances. Jama is clearly the latter, and I wonder how bad his “circumstances” were to drive someone back there to earn their livelihood.
He also showed us the courtyard where the prisoners played tennis, and in one corner was Nelson Mandela’s garden:
Then he showed us the cell block for the “common,” or non-political criminals, where there was a not-overly-large room that housed 50 prisoners, all on the same sisal mats, for which there were 2 toilets.
Apparently they eventually got bunk-beds, but not until the 80s (!). He showed us various other things, including the mess hall, and explained how the diet differed based on race classification. Under Apartheid, there were three main racial classifications—white, black, and colored (this included lighter-skinned Africans, Indians, and other brown-skinned non-natives). Black people were considered somehow naturally averse to meat (because of their racial inferiority, of course), and ate mostly pap (a sort of gruel). People in the colored class fared a little better, and of course white prisoners actually got to eat meat every once in a while. In 1978 Jama was part of a hunger strike protesting this, which was successful.
After the tour of the prison, a very nice woman with an unpronounceable name beginning with the letter “N” showed us around the island on a mini-bus.
In the 1840s, the island was originally inhabited by lepers and the mentally ill. We saw the graveyard where the lepers were buried, and the church that was built for them, which was actually quite beautiful.
We went to the village where the white prison warders lived, and their church, all built by convicts. N— told us that during the 60s the Dutch had a group that would put stickers on oranges that were imported from South Africa that said something to the effect of “if you buy these oranges you are supporting Apartheid.”
She then took us to the lime quarry, which is were many of the political prisoners, including Mandela, worked. This was the location of some of Mandela’s famous “slow strikes,” during which they protested various conditions by doing the work required of them, but as slowly as possible. His book describes the philosophical debates and even chess matches that took place in the quarries between the highly educated members of the ANC. N— let us out against regulation, because she felt bad about the whole, “I-don’t-care-if-you-bought-a-ticket-we’re-full-so-screw-you” thing. This was very cool, and the icing on the cake was when the H.I. bus rolled up, and of course our American friend had to stay put. My new Dutch acquaintances waved at them cheerfully and yelled, “Sorry you can’t get out, but this is a private tour!”
The last thing we saw was the house of Robert Sobukwe, the founder of the Pan-African Congress. This organization also fought Apartheid, but if the ANC’s policies were akin to those of Martin Luther King’s, the PAC’s were closer to those of Malcolm X. The ANC did eventually organize a military wing (conceived of by Mandela), but it was only after they had exhausted every peaceful means of protest available to them, and their non-violent demonstrations had begun to evoke responses like white police officers firing indiscriminately into crowds containing women and children and loosing dogs on peaceful protestors.
Sobukwe’s house broke my heart. He was considered so dangerous that he was kept in solitary confinement for decades, and apparently his mind broke under the strain. This is understandable, but what really got me out was the fact that his house was in the same fenced enclosure as the kennels, where they kept dogs trained to hunt men who tried to escape from the prison.
When we got back to the dock, the ferry had left (of course), so I wandered through the curio shop for a bit while waiting for the next one. I wasn’t sure what to think. On the one hand, the proceeds go toward the upkeep of the place and the salaries of the tour guides, but on the other, buying a shot glass emblazond with “Robben Island” seems to cheapen the horrors suffered by the inmates.
I wanted to stop by Greenmarket Square on my way back from the waterfront, which is an outdoor market with (theoretically) locally made crafts, and I was really looking forward to shopping and bargaining for souvenirs. But when I approached, all of the vendors were packing up because of a protest. There were police cars barricading the streets, and before long a massive crowd of people came running around the corner, dancing and clapping their hands and singing in one of the tribal languages. It was quite beautiful, actually. If it hadn’t been for the police cars I would have thought it was a parade. I turned to the man standing next to me and asked what was going on. He replied in either Xhosa or Zulu, and I didn’t understand, so I said, “Sorry?” He grinned at me and said in heavily accented English, “We are hating white people.” I silently turned around and walked away, and took the long way back to my hostel. I hung out in the bar for the rest of the evening, drinking truly awful South African beer and filling out job applications. High roller, that’s me.
To my dismay, the morning I left Pretoria for Cape Town, I woke up with a sore throat and the beginnings of a sinus headache. The plane ride was fairly miserable, though thankfully only 2 hours. When I had made my hostel booking, the allure of only paying $15/night convinced me that I could handle sleeping in a 6-person dorm for 4 nights. I now realized the folly of this, but they didn’t have any private rooms available.
I woke up the next morning feeling, if not completely healthy, much better, so I decided that it was allergies after being out in nature and playing with warthogs and elephants and stuff. So with the help of some antihistamines, I went out to attack the day. I really wanted to take the funicular up Table Mountain, which is one of the top tourist sites in all of Africa. But it was cloudy and cold and drizzly, and there’s not much point in going up when the weather is like that because you can’t see through the “tablecloth.”
The story goes that long ago there was a fellow named Mynheer van Hunks. He lived up on the mountain, and was so famous for being able to out-smoke everyone that one day the devil challenged him to a smoking contest, Charlie Daniels Band style, with his soul as the stakes. When the cloud wreathes the mountain, it’s van Hunks and the devil vying for who can get lung cancer first.
At any rate, there was a free walking tour that met by St. George’s Cathedral, which is the oldest cathedral in South Africa, and the starting point for Archbishop Tutu’s famous demonstration in 1989, where 30,000 people peacefully marched against Apartheid. As if its associations with a truly great man and a singular moment in history didn’t make it cool enough, there is also a jazz club in the crypt called, appropriately enough, “The Crypt,” with nightly live performances.
We saw the Company Gardens, where the Dutch East India company grew much-needed healthy food for the malnourished and scurvy-ridden sailors who arrived after spending 3 months or so living on hard tack and rum.
We saw Nelson Mandela’s house (though he never really lived there), and the piece of the Berlin Wall that was gifted to Mandela and has to be kept under constant guard against people trying to steal chunks and sell them on ebay.
We also strolled through Bo Kaap, an historically Malay neighborhood of colorful houses and cobblestone streets. There’s a story that the houses used to be a uniform gray, but a doctor who lived there had trouble because patients never knew which house to go to, so he painted it bright pink. This worked until the other residents decided that it was cool and followed suit, putting the well-intentioned doctor back at square one.
Apparently Cape Town is going through what our guide called “hipsterization,” in which all sorts of independent stores are popping up all over the place, particularly with gourmet coffee brewing, and the place kind of is a coffee shop mecca. They’re even attempting to get a microbrewery going, though from what I hear (and drank), they should stick to wine.
Now, I consider myself a fairly sophisticated traveler. I have been all over the world, often traveling alone in some fairly dodgy places, and I’ve never been robbed. I always make sure to carry a messenger-style bag, which I wear across my body and hold in front of my hip, even though this looks fairly uncool. I don’t carry things in my back pockets or leave my bag open, even for a second. I don’t flash money when I’m paying for things, and usually don’t carry large amounts of cash in one place. I even have a dummy wallet with a few bucks in it that I can give to potential robbers should I be mugged. I carry my passport in a waist wallet so if my bag does get stolen, I can still leave the country.
In other words, I was cocky.
On the tour, I was taking pictures with my iPhone. When I wasn’t actively snapping a photo, I put it in my pocket and kept one hand on it, so it didn’t occur to me that I could be a likely target for a thief. I was walking near the back of the group, next to a Dutch girl who was also on the tour. Suddenly three guys stepped between me and the group. I felt a little like a gazelle being separated from the herd by lions. One of them walked into me head-on, and another shoved me hard in the left shoulder and went for my bag. I immediately grabbed my bag with both hands, and even though I hadn’t felt a thing, I knew that the nanosecond I took my hand off my iPhone, a third accomplice had lifted it. The Dutch girl said, “I saw him take it! He was wearing a red hat!” So I started yelling, “Hey! Thief! Get back here!” (okay, fine, there may have also been some profanity), and then ran off after the guy. I hadn’t actually seen his face, so I wasn’t entirely sure who I was chasing, but I saw a red hat and went for it.
By this time the rest of the group realized what had happened, and we all fanned out to look for red hats. We saw a guy about a block away, and started running toward him. One of the guys from Long Street outpaced us and then did something very smart. He didn’t want to accuse some random guy of being a thief with no proof, so to keep him there until we could catch up and the Dutch girl could identify him, he started making pleasant yet aggressive small talk. “Hi, my name is —, what’s your name? Are you from Cape Town? I’m from America.”—that sort of thing. Sure enough, he wasn’t our guy, and I realized that the culprit may as well have melted.
I felt pretty stupid, but the rest of the group was really cool and did their best to cheer me up. Eventually we finished the tour at the old slave market. On arrival, newly-imported slaves were stripped of their identities and re-named according to the month in which they appeared on the auction block. Our guide said that he has friends whose surnames are months, and there was a sad monument with the names of former slaves listed, one of which simply said, “April,” with no surname. It kind of put my experience in perspective, though I was still upset. The Long Street crowd took me back to their hostel, where a very nice Canadian girl sold me her old phone for a ridiculously cheap price and showed me where to get a sim card, and then the owner of the hostel pointed me in the direction of the police station.
At the station, even though there were only two people ahead of me, I waited more than an hour before a female officer sat me down and took my statement. Bizarrely, before you can get a case number, you have to wait until an officer is assigned to your case, at which point they text you your number. To complicate matters, when you get a new phone, your number is not on the back of the sim card. You have to activate it and wait about 3 hours to get a text with your number. So when the woman asked me for a phone number, I said, “um…I’m here because my phone was stolen. I don’t have a number.” She asked me if I could give her a friend’s number, and when I explained that I was traveling alone, she looked at me in disbelief (and possibly pity) and said, “You mean you don’t have any friends?” I finally gave her the Canadian girl’s number, figuring that I could explain why the Cape Town police were contacting her once I got my phone working. When I asked for a xerox of the paperwork, she looked at me, sighed deeply, and disappeared for half an hour. Eventually I got what I needed and threaded my way back to my hostel to decompress and get a hot toddy at the bar, since my throat had started hurting again.
So it was kind of a frustrating afternoon, especially when I found that the insurance didn’t require a police report, and I therefore had not needed to spend the afternoon in a South African police station. But I decided to go to the Crypt with a couple of my new acquaintances, where I had a lovely time listening to Emily Bruce, whom I highly recommend checking out online. When I finally got home, I’d calmed down enough to get really excited about my trip to Robben Island the next day.
The rest of the conference was brilliant—I met and hung out with a lot of cool people, heard some great papers, drank too much, and didn’t get enough sleep. The day after the conference, I woke up at 4:30 AM (on purpose) so that we could leave at 5 to make the 2 hour drive out to the Pilanesburg game reserve. I ask you, how many conferences begin with a wine festival and end with a safari?
But I digress.
I snagged shotgun, because I was ridiculously excited, and I thought that would be the best position from which to take photos of animals. But even though it was the ass crack of dawn, and I’d been looking forward to a nap, our driver, A—, decided that if she had to be awake, the rest of us did too. She was quite a tyrant about it. When she saw people nodding off in the back she would yell to wake them up and turn up the radio. Since I was riding shotgun, I got the brunt, and I felt my enthusiasm for the seating arrangement waning.
But I revived a bit when we stopped for a coffee and a breakfast involving a pomegranate magnum* halfway there. When we arrived we saw impala, wildebeests, warthogs, zebras, and various birds, though none of the more exotic animals or the cats were cooperating (I really wanted to see a honey badger!):
Someone said they saw lions sleeping behind this tree, and we spent ages trying to find them, but I never saw any. However, if you look very closely, you can see that someone left a snack for later:
It was all very cool, but the exciting thing happened right before lunch. We were on a little road next to a pond where there were a couple of hippos hanging out, and there was a family of elephants playing in the water:
We watched until one of the elephants, a huge bull with a broken tusk, emerged and decided that there were tastier trees on the other side of the road:
This wouldn’t have been so bad, only he decided that the very choicest leaves were located in our direction, cutting us off from our caravan leader:
A— was freaking out and trying to back up, but it’s not easy communicating to a line of 5 or 6 cars that they all must back up to avoid an elephant, when most of them can’t see what’s going on. Many of them got quite shirty about it, and exercised their horns, which didn’t improve the elephant’s mood. In addition to that, we got stuck on one of the bollards separating the dirt road we were on from the hippos in the pond. Meanwhile, I was leaning so far out the window to take pictures that I was in danger of going for an accidental swim with the hippos.
I was just about to record a movie when I realized that a) there was, in fact, an elephant coming toward us b) said elephant was BIG c) the elephant probably broke his tusk on another elephant d) A—was really freaking out e) I was in the best position to direct her off the bollard, and f) I should really help. She did brilliantly. She managed to communicate to the truck in front of us that they actually had to drive toward the elephant so that we could move forward off of the bollard and thence back and away from the elephant.
I don’t think any of us in the van were seriously frightened, because the elephant wasn’t acting particularly aggressive, and because it was all so novel and new to us (zebras and hippos and elephants, oh my!) that we weren’t quite cognizant of the danger a full-grown, hungry elephant poses. In retrospect, though, A—probably had very good reason for freaking out, and I will probably be a bit less blasé the next time a full-grown elephant takes a stroll in my direction—and I’ll admit, I hope there is a next time,* because c’mon—f*n wild elephants!
After getting away via a back road and eventually finding the other vans, we set up sterno grills for a brae (South African BBQ, rhymes with “eye”) and our intrepid driveress and two helpers prepared delicious sausage, grilled corn, stir-fry veggies, and some spicy salsa-y stuff, all of which combined for a lovely picnic lunch.
Toward the end, we had some visitors:
You’re not supposed to feed them, but we did anyway. Did you know that warthogs kneel on their forelegs to eat, and actually walk around that way? It was hilarious.
It was a great day, elephant attack and all. But it was long, and I’d been up since 4:30. I was pretty exhausted by the time we got back, and I had to get up early-ish to catch my flight to Cape Town in the morning. I was deliriously excited about Cape Town, because as awesome as the conference was, it’s been a rough year finishing the dissertation. I haven’t had a real vacation in god knows how long, and I was looking forward to 4 days all to myself in one of the coolest cities in the world. I couldn’t wait.
So of course I woke up the next morning with a wicked sore throat and a stuffy head. But that’s another entry. The best is yet to come.
*This is a type of ice cream bar, not some sort of freaky flavored prophylactic.
*I’m already mentally composing an abstract to submit for consideration for next year’s conference.
Day 1 of the Conference: My exhausting day of playing with neanderthal skulls, petting cheetahs, and getting bitten by lions, combined with jetlagged-induced insomnia, contributed to my oversleeping for the first day of the conference. I only made it through half of a tiny cup of coffee before the van arrived to shuttle us to the university, which was not fantastic, since I was the second speaker of the first panel.
I survived giving my paper, though I totally flubbed a couple of questions. There were two panels before lunch and two after, with 30 minute coffee and snack breaks after each panel. Even so, everyone was flagging after lunch. We’d come from all corners of the world, and most of us were jetlagged as hell. After the first afternoon session, my entire body was screaming for caffeine, but when I went into the lobby, I discovered that they had run out of coffee. I took a deep breath and tried not to panic. College campuses the world over were surrounded by cafes. I would find coffee. It would be okay.
One of my similarly-caffeine-addicted new acquaintances and I asked around, and discovered that there was a cafe on the third floor, but when we got there, we discovered that the cafe had closed 15 minutes earlier. Several other people had had the same idea, and had gotten the barista to agree to make 3 cups of coffee. I didn’t feel right asking him to make more (I’ve been a barista, it’s really annoying when people ask you to make them just one quick latte when you are jonesing to get the hell out of there). Around that time another roving band of caffeine-seeking historians turned up, and we stood around panicking and exchanging information and rumors.
“Is there a cafe near campus?”
“I asked, the guard said there’s not.”
“What the hell kind of university doesn’t have a coffee shop??”
“Um, actually, we’re standing in a coffee shop.”
It was actually kind of a bonding experience. My companion and I decided to try the dining hall where we’d had lunch, so we trooped outside and crossed the street, only to find that for THAT DAY ONLY they were closed in the afternoon for pest maintenance. I badly needed a fix, and I swear I was getting the DTs. What if I fell asleep and faceplanted and humiliated myself in front of a roomful of prominent historians?
When we got back, my friend disappeared, and during the next break, I saw him across the room, from whence he air-toasted me with a cup coffee he had apparently found in the Classics department on the fifth floor. I was tempted to tackle the smug jerk and steal his coffee. But all was forgiven when he pointed to a cup of coffee on the table beside him and pantomimed that it was for me. I could have kissed him. As I made my way across the room through the crowd, he turned his back on it for a millisecond, and some jetlagged rat bastard stole it before he could give it to me. I never even saw the culprit. These are the depths to which historians sink when when you starve them of coffee.
Because of the oddities of jetlag, I was actually feeling more awake by the time we got to the hotel, where we had about an hour before we left for a wine convention in nearby Sandton. As the time for departure grew near and people started milling about the patio, I excused myself and went to my room to check my email, reasoning that I would hear when people gathered to go to the vans. At some point, I looked up from my computer and realized that there was complete silence outside. I ran out to the patio, and sure enough, everyone except 3 people who were not attending the festival was gone. I ran through the dining room and lobby and out the front gate, but no one was there. I turned to go back inside and realized that I’d accidentally locked myself out. Crap. I frantically pushed the black button on the box hanging from the side of the gate, hoping that someone at the desk would hear the buzzer and let me in. I could see the non-attendees sitting on the patio, and started jumping up and down and waving my arms, hoping that one of them would see me and let me in, but no one saw me. In a panic, I called the conference organizer to tell him they’d left without me, and he laughed and said no, they were still around back and hadn’t left yet.
So I went to the side of the hotel, and realized that the only way to get to the back, other than through the gate, was to go all the way around the block, which seemed ridiculous. So I went back and pressed on the black button repeatedly, thinking that SURELY someone would hear and let me in, only there didn’t seem to be any sound when I pushed the buzzer. I reverted to jumping up and down and waving my arms, but it was just as effective as it had been the first time. I decided to make a sprint for it around the block, and just as I’d started running, and was at my most wild-eyed, a guy strolled out of his room at the annex across the street, looked me up and down, and asked what I was doing. I’m not sure that the words that came out of my mouth were English, and I felt extremely foolish when he walked over to the gate and pushed a glowing white rectangle to the side of the door, which was flush with what I had thought was a mailbox and (I swear) didn’t even look like a button. Of course the buzzer buzzed and someone came immediately, making me feel extremely foolish. At any rate, I made it. When we got to the enormous convention center in Sandton, we were each given a complimentary wine glass and turned loose to sample the finest wares of South Africa’s wine country.
Somehow I immediately got separated from all of my companions. Despite the fact that there were about 30 of them, I couldn’t find anyone in the crowded hall, so I wandered around, drinking alone. Just about the time when I thought I really ought to have run into someone else by now, I found the guy who had gone to the Cradle of Mankind with me, who was in the same situation. So we had a good time going from vendor to vendor, chatting and sampling wines, until it was time to meet up with the others and go home. As I was getting ready for bed, I realized that a) it’s easy to lose track of how much wine you’ve had when you get it in such tiny sips, and b) it was therefore a very good thing that I’d already given my paper.
On 21st October 2013, I set out for a conference at the University of South Africa in Pretoria. The trip was fairly uneventful, except that the very first thing the woman in front of me did when we got in the air for our 11.5 hour flight from London to Johannesburg was to crank her seat all the way back, which made me lose all circulation in my legs. I made a point of kneeing her seatback every time I shifted position to try to restore feeling to my extremities. After traveling for a total of about 20 hours, I got into Johannesburg around 8:45 AM, and after a slight mishap where the train ticket machine ate my debit card, made it into Pretoria around 11.
It was stunning. My jaw dropped when I saw the jacaronda trees, which were absolutely everywhere in the city. All of the streets had arches of purple flowers crowning them, and brilliantly lavender petals carpeted the sidewalks. The smell was heady and intense, like laurel and rainbows and unicorn breath:
One of the conference organizers was kind enough to meet me at the station and see me installed in the Brooklyn Guesthouse, which was simply delightful, with patios and flowers and outdoor tables and a tea garden.
Even though I desperately wanted to sleep, it wasn’t even noon, so I decided that I’d take a hot shower and try to tough it out, so the woman at the desk pointed me in the direction of a mega-mall where I could at least get something to eat.
Of course, being me, I went in completely the wrong direction, but eventually found a place that served breakfast, where I devoured a giant plate of perfectly cooked eggs, crisp grilled tomato, delicious whole-grain toast with killer homemade strawberry jam, fries, and a mouthwatering, enormous English-style rasher of bacon. While I was stuffing my face, I watched a woman bawl out my waiter because her food, which was identical to mine, was BADLY COOKED and all-round TERRIBLE. Meanwhile, I was trying to decide whether I could lick my plate without anyone noticing. I left a bit extra for tip because she was being such a bitch.
I felt better after a night’s rest. I had arrived a day early, so was trying to decide what to do with myself. I really wanted to visit the Cradle of Mankind, which is an area of caves about an hour’s drive from Pretoria where archaeologists found a whole mess o’ hominid skeletons, which shows the evolution from ape to Anatomically Modern Humans better than any other place in the world.
Nearby is a place called the “Wonder Cave” that has all sorts of beautiful rock formations, and not far from there is a lion and rhino preserve, where you can actually play with lion cubs. There was a quite reasonable deal with the guesthouse for a private guide who would pick you up at your door, take you to one or all of these places, give you lunch, and drop you off back home, but you needed at least two people to go. There was only one other early arrival, so I knocked on his door and said something to the effect of, “Hi, I’ve never met you, but I need a warm body so I can go look at neanderthal skulls and play with giant kitties. You in?” Luckily, he was game.
The Sterkfontein caves were fascinating. There was a terrific museum on evolution that we went through before going into the caves (I was quite impressed that there was none of this nonsense). I learned all sorts of things, though I was a little embarrassed that I had never heard of this site, since I’ve long been fascinated with early man.
Our guide even got them to let us back into the workshop where they were making plaster reproductions of some of the finds in the cave for the gift shop.
I really wanted to buy a neanderthal skull, but thought a human skull in my carry-on might be hard to explain to the customs officers, so I settled for a reproduction of a dinosaur skull.
The Wonder Cave was beautiful as well:
But the highlight of the day was without a doubt the Lion and Rhino park. It’s a small preserve, so I can’t really call our tour a safari, but we did see quite a lot of wildlife.
Apparently, male and female ostriches take turns sitting on their nests.
And we were fortunate enough to arrive on feeding day, so we got to see the rangers tossing out chunks of animal to lions, cheetahs, and wild dogs.
Please sir, I want some more!
Afterward, I paid R 30, which is something like $2.50, to go into an enclosure and play with Eddie the Cheetah, who purred like a lawnmower the entire time. I had had no idea that the big cats purred, and was totally charmed. It was love at first sight.
Then I got to play with 3 five-month-old lion cubs, one of whom decided that my arm was a good chew toy.
My second day in Africa, and I got bitten by a lion. Go figure. She didn’t break the skin, but it was enough to realize how terrifically strong her jaws were. But they were so fuzzy and cute it made my brain hurt.
Finally, we had lunch at a cafe on a rooftop, where the main attraction was a giraffe living next door, whom you could feed.
After one of the best days of my life, it was time to go back to the hotel for a reception to meet the other conference attendees, who had arrived by then. I was dreading it a bit, but I put on my game face and did my best to sound smart and interesting and employable. Luckily, everyone I met was really friendly and I had a very nice time, which boded well for the rest of the conference.
Thoughts from a Texas Exile
I haven’t blogged in a long time, but something happened today on which I have more thoughts than will fit in a facebook status update. This morning, I gave a talk at a local middle school about the Persian Wars and the origins of Athenian democracy. I did my best to challenge their preconceived notions, to show them that history isn’t black and white, and that we have to think critically and not just accept whatever we hear about the past. I tried to stress the relevance and timelessness of these themes to our world today, and draw parallels to many of the political debates that are happening in our country right now. I was blown away by the maturity of these 8th graders—they paid closer attention and asked more and smarter questions than many of the college students I have taught.
Afterward, I was talking to some of the teachers, and one of them asked me if I were ashamed to be from Texas. I was so taken aback that I murmured something about how not all Texans are like Rick Perry and Ted Cruz. But the more I thought about it, the madder I got. I know there are a lot of batshit crazy, gun-toting lunatics in Texas, but there are ignorant bigots everywhere. Personally, I’d take Wendy Davis over Rick “man on dog” Santorum, or Tom “just close your eyes” Corbett, but I didn’t ask her if she were ashamed to be from Pennsylvania. I have a lot of problems with Texas on the political level, but being a Texan is in my blood. There’s something about the landscape that grabs your mind and heart and won’t let go. There’s a lonely, harsh beauty in the sere vistas of West Texas that all the Clint Eastwood westerns in the world can’t communicate. It makes your heart ache in a way I can’t describe, yet is wonderful and awe-inspiring at the same time. The scrub brush and mesquite bushes that alternate with fields on fields of wheat in the rolling landscape of the Hill Country is not to be matched anywhere else in the country. And there is absolutely nothing so breathtaking as driving down a Texas highway in the spring, and passing field upon field of bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush and primroses and black-eyed Susans that stretch as far as the eye can see.
And then there’s the people. Yes, on balance, they’re conservative. There’s a lot of hate and bigotry, but like I said, that’s true everywhere. Texas doesn’t have a monopoly on rednecks. Don’t believe me? Go to central Pennsylvania sometime. In Texas, though, you will find some of the warmest, friendliest, kindest-hearted people you will meet anywhere on the planet. If you stand on a street corner looking slightly confused, within minutes 3 or 4 people will ask if you’re lost and if they can help, and there’s a good chance they’ll take you home for Sunday lunch and cook you a brisket. When I moved to the Northeast, I thought all the people were assholes. The introversion and seclusion and silence even in the midst of crowds was baffling and foreign to me. I’ve since learned that most people are friendlier than they appear at first glance, but you have to make the effort. If I’m lost (which I frequently am), most people are perfectly happy to give me directions, but I have to ask, and it is sometimes daunting to flag down a stranger who is hurrying down the street, eyes on the sidewalk, not speaking to anyone. That spontaneous warmth that lets you make bosom friends in line at the grocery store, that connects strangers in malls and parking lots and restaurants, is often simply lacking north of the Mason-Dixon line.
In Houston (my home town), you’ll find cultural institutions to rival the great cities of the northeast. Symphony orchestras, theaters, museums, parks, zoos, and restaurants featuring cuisine from every corner of the world abound. Independent coffee shops and locally-owned bookstores and intriguing little stores and historical buildings pop up in the most unexpected places. Rice University is one of the best small liberal arts colleges in the nation, and Rice Village, in its immediate environs, is simply delightful. Let’s not forget Austin, in all its quirky glory, which somehow manages to be both a liberal college town with the most unique and charming personality of any place I’ve ever lived—and I’ve lived in quite a few—and the capitol of a red state. And as its crowning glory, Austin boasts the University of Texas, my alma mater and another world-class institution (Hook ‘em horns!).
Don’t even get me started on the food. Good Mexican food exists in the Northeast, but you have to pay for it. In Texas, you go to a hole in the wall place, get a pile of food the size of your head for about $5, and it’s the best meal you’ve ever had. You get barbecue that is simply out of this world (sorry, Kansas City and North Carolina), and $2 draft beer to wash it down.
I could go on (and on and on), but I think I’ve made my point. My politics may differ from many Texans, I may have made my split from organized religion, and I may have chosen to make my home elsewhere. But I’m a Texan, and it’s part of who I am. So, to the woman who asked me the question earlier, the answer is no. I’m not ashamed to be from Texas. And even though you showered me with praise after my presentation and told me how wonderful it was that I’d challenged the students to think and presented difficult material in a way they could understand, and how much it would help them relate to their upcoming studies in modern American politics, I think the 13 year olds in the room learned the lessons about critical thinking and open-mindedness that I was trying so hard to teach much better than you did.