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March 29, 2005

Cape Town

Cape Town, South Africa

Tuesday, March 29, 2005:

Since I hadn't had much to eat after a long night awake, I went to grab my breakfast in the dining room of the hotel at about 7:15 AM. Robert, the lodger who had greeted me on my arrival two days earlier, was there. He was very warm and enthusiastic as he asked me how I was enjoying myself and how my time had been so far. But after a few moments of chatter, I found that I had beenrail-roaded into a conversation with a certifiable loon.

"Its soo nice to talk to an American who isn't loud and obnoxious" he told me--- unlike a family he had observed charging noisily through a church a few years back. "Those people were the worst," he observed before digressing further into an uninvited, depressing and boorish series of monologues .

For starters, Robert "warned" me not to give a penny to the kids begging for change on the streets because they were "worthless little shits" who would steal my money the second I took it out of my pocket. He stared me in the eye with an expression that reminded me of the one "Golum" gives in the Lord of the Ring series of films whenever he is angry.

That gem of wisdom dispersed, he proceeded to assure me that even though the Americans were bad, the Germans were worse. "They just love the little black kids and give them money," he told me --- whatever that meant. As for the Swiss (in case I was wondering, apparently) --- they weren't that bad: He had apparently told the last two Swiss men to stay at the hotel that he was looking for a rich sugar-daddy to support him. This obviously caused them some discomfort, which he recounted with glee.

Desperate to escape, I told Robert that I would have to get going (very) soon as I wanted to make it to Table Mountain when the cable car up to the top began operating at 8:30. He looked at the clock and assured me (or so he thought) that I had plenty of time and that I really should read a weather report because it would probably be cloudy and/or windy, in which case the cable car would not be running. Having established that I was going precisely nowhere, Robert (who I could sense was really enjoying my company --- not to be egotistical because I don't consider this something to be proud of) discussed his dislike of Bush and his impressions on September 11 and the war in Iraq before confiding in me a deep secret.

"I'm going to tell you a secret," he said in a whisper.

I winced with excitement. "Ahh," I said.

"I can sense things sometimes."

"Really?" I asked (because asking this seemed altogether more polite and less rhetorical than asking "You're completely out of your head, aren't you?").

"Yes," he said, "When Pricess Di passed away --- I knew something had happened... I told my friend something tragic had happened, I felt it suddenly."

"Ahh," I said.

"Interesting," he said, "very very interesting."

"Ahh hah," I said.

"One time," Robert said, "I was on a narrow highway late at night when I rounded a corner and saw a car come barreling at me from less than 20 meters away. I knew I was about to die. I closed my eyes and prayed to the lord and when I opened my eyes there was no trace of the car. I have no other explanation for this than that I was momentarily transported to the Fourth Dimension."

"Hmmm," I said, wondering if I could be momentarily transported to the Fourth Dimension.

"Interesting," Robert said, "very very interesting."

How I longed to be back in South America where the language barrier permitted me to "no entiendo" my way out of these kinds of situations. Not that I met a single person on the continent who was clearly this warped. Fortunately, Robert excused himself shortly after the Fourth Dimension story to head to work. But he promised he would stop by my room to chat later. Since then I have kept time in my room to a bare minimum.

I went out to a clear sunny day. For the first time, I could see just how close Table Mountain was and how there really was an enormous mountain jutting from out of the center of the city. I started walking down Long Street in its direction and stopped for coffee at a "Mugg & Bean" store in a small upscale mall. "Coffee is what makes civilized life possible in these uncertain times," read a sign on the wall. I couldn't agree more.

I walked further down long street, passing a mix of restaurants: seafood places, French bistros, a Vietnamese place, a Thai place, a place advertising giant tiger prawns served Mozambique-style. Finally I flagged down a cab to drive me the rest of the way up to the mountain because I wasn't sure just exactly how much walking I would have to do in order to reach the lower cable car station part of the way up the side.

My cab driver was friendly and drove like a sane man, something I haven't experienced in a long while. As we made our way up the hills, we began to pass numerous cars parked on the side of the road. "It is crowded today," said my driver, "very very crowded." In fact, we had stopped moving because there were numerous cars in front of us now.

"I can get out and walk the rest of the way from here," I said.

"Its a long way to get there yet," said my driver --- "a long walk to freedom."

Nevertheless I walked ther rest of the way to the cable station (it wasn't really that far). When I got there, I saw hundreds of people waiting in line to purchase tickets. It could have been a thousand. Families, school classes, screaming babies. It was the build-up from a holiday weekend plagued by bad weather. All of the people who hadn't been able to visit over the last several days were now descending (or ascending) in droves on the place. I abruptly changed my mind about visiting the mountain top that day.

The view of Cape Town from the lower cable station was still impressive, with the city sprawled out in all directions below, reaching out to the blue waters of Table Mountain Bay. After getting a good look, I turned around and began to walk back down the hill to the center of the city again. I passed numerous stunned-looking drivers who were just arriving and beginning to realize that the park was absolutely jammed. As I began to reach the outskirts of the city again, I passed a number of hillside houses. They were small but well kept. I noticed three things in particular in this neighborhood (and from then on in most other neighborhoods as well): (1) There were very few pedestrians on the street, (2) A surprising number of the cars on the road were BMWs, and (3) Most houses featured prominent stickers advertising the fact that they are protected by an armed security service. All three observations have to do with the crime in South Africa. South Africans buy a ton of BMWs: the company runs anti-carjacking seminars for its customers.

After a few hours back in the city center, I walked up Long Street toward the commercial sector, then caught a taxi to the Two Oceans Acquarium, located amidst the docks and warehouses of the beautiful V&A Waterfront.

The name Two Oceans Acquarium leads one to think instantly of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans, but the two do not in fact meet south of Cape Town. It is somewhat arbitrary to say where one ends and the other begins but it is generally agreed that the southernmost tip of Africa, Cape Agulhas, is the dividing line. This does not of course mean that one crosses over from one to the other and instantly experiences warmer/colder water and a startling difference in marine life. The currents go back and forth and the blend is a gradual one. All of that said, the waters on the western, Atlantic side of Cape Town and along the eastern side do have some real differences in temperature and marine life. The acquarium's informational fliers note that while the coastal area around Cape Point and some distance East and West (where the creatures in the acquarium are from) constitutes only about 3% of the South African coast, about 33% of all the species of marine life along the South African coast can be found there. In other words, an incredibly diverse number of critters.

I spent several hours gazing at an impressive range of well-displayed and informatively labeled creatures. Immense green and spotted moray eels slid back and forth through a tank filled with other fish, their jaws opening and closing slowly as they went. Gigantic, alien-looking spider crabs moved in slowl-motion around a vast, dimly lit tank meant to recreate their virtually sunless habitat hundreds of feet below the water. There were also jelly fish, rare Knysna sea horses (the world's only estuarine sea horse) and displays of penguins and seals to please the kiddies. Two highlights were the Kelp Forest Tank and the Predator Tank. The Kelp Forest Tank was open to the sun at the top and featured immense (10 to 15 foot) stalks of kelp that swayed back and forth in the artificial current just like the trees in a forest would move in the wind. Large silver fish navigated their way about the maze.

The Predator Tank featured sting rays, a bull ray, an annoyed-looked gigantic tortoise, schools of yellowtails and jacks and the main drawing card, four or five ragged-tooth sharks. The sharks ("raggies" --- also known as Sand Tiger Sharks) were large, muscular and mean-looking as they swam in slow menacing circles around their tank. With red-streaked, un-flinching yellow eyes and row upon row of ugly jagged teeth, they look dangerous but are not in fact considered threatening to people. The Predator Tank was so large that it had two floors from which it could be viewed and one could walk down a connecting tunnel that featured different views all around the way. Interestingly enough, scuba divers can arrange to dive in the tank with the sharks and other fish, though I personally do not find this a very interesting proposition as I would rather see everything in the ocean and will have the chance to do that when I leave Cape Town to travel East along the South African coast.

After the visit to the acquarium I walked along the waterfront past shops and seafood restaurants, past a clocktower dating to 1862, and into the building known as the Nelson Mandela Gateway. This is the departure point for ships to Robben Island, a now-defunct island prison (made a UN World Heritage site) off the shores of Cape Town--- the one-time Alcatraz of South Africa --- where Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners hostile to the apartheid government were kept (in Mandela's case for 20 years). The Gateway has several exhibits and wall-side panels featuring information on the island and the history of the prison, while the tours (which I did not take, though I eventually will) are led by ex-prisoners who tell first-hand accounts of their experiences there.

I then went to the Cape Town Visitors office, which had hundreds and hundreds of different informational pamphlets available for the taking. They cover the city's restaurants, wine tours, safaris, sky-diving, mountain biking, hiking, ostrich farm visits, and so on.

After another hour at the immense and upscale Victoria Wharf Shopping Center (mall), I took a cab back to Long Street. Because I had not slept in 24 hours, I called it a night at 7 PM.

Posted by Joshua on March 29, 2005 01:19 PM
Category: South Africa

Paranoia is essential here --- just as in Epcot...

Posted by: Josh on April 5, 2005 04:12 PM
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