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April 16, 2005

Escape from the Cape

Cape Town, South Africa

Friday, April 8, through Saturday, April 16 (More or less...), 2005:

My last week or so in Cape Town wasn't quite the thrill that the sky diving experience provided. In fact, it was fairly low-key and at times simply boring. While I waited for my second ATM replacement card to arrive, I did manage to keep myself busy for several days by making it to various attractions in the city that I still had not experienced, but after a time, I was left with little else to do but read in cafes and spend time on the internet --- all while dodging the dodgy sorts on Long Street and being constrained by a lack of cash and an inability to safely walk from the City Bowl area to certain other parts of Cape Town.

On Friday, April 8, I took a tour of Robben Island, the prison at which Nelson Mandela spent nearly 20 years of his sentence along with numerous other political prisoners of the Apartheid era. Robben Island is about 5 miles or so (I think; I don't honestly remember the exact figure) off the coast and presents spectacular views of the city and Table Mountain. It is inhabited by numerous rare birds, plenty of curious-looking little jack-ass penguins, deer, and sea lions. Although it is fairly flat and lacking much in the way of tree-cover, it is still a beautiful place --- or would be, but for its history. Any government that would set the place aside as a prison is sick by definition.

Although the tour around the island was one of those packed-on-a-bus-ass-to-elbow-with-tourists-in-short-shorts-with-high-socks sort of experiences, the guide was very good and managed to make herself heard over the din of the Polish man translating every word she spoke to four of his non-English speaking family members and the old California lady's screachingly loud "oh lovely!" declarations every single time a penguin darted out in the middle of the road (often). The tour of the prison itself was unforgettable: It was led by an ex-prisoner, as all of the tours now are. Our guide, Patrick, told us his story in a voice that was calm, deliberate and strong, yet full of a just-barely-restrained rage. He was arrested in 1967, when he was 18 years old, and sentenced the same year to 20 years in prison. He served the full 20 year sentence (not a single day less), working in a limestone quarry, having his incoming mail censored to the point where it was completely unreliable (another prisoner received a falsified letter from his wife telling him she was leaving him when she was not), and suffering various other abuses and indignities. When he was released, he was a pariah without prospects --- Apartheid would last more than five more years. When asked why he was arrested, Patrick told us it was because he had been to various other countries in Africa (including Egypt) to receive military training to oppose the Apartheid government. "They labeled me a terrorist," he told us; "But I was NOT a terrorist --- I was a FREEDOM FIGHTER!" I found this remark an interesting one, though history has justified his claim (and I agree with it). Less interesting --- horrifying, in fact --- was some stupid American or Canadian woman's question for Patrick: "How did you get the name Patrick?" As if a black South African man could not be given that name by his mother, as he in fact had. "Its Irish," she mumbled, by way of semi-apology.

During the next few days I saw museums until I nearly dropped. There is the National Gallery, exhibiting an eclectic but worthwhile collection of modern art pieces. There was also the South African Museum, which included early examples of African rock/cave art and other native African works. I spent most of my time there seeing the "Shark World" exhibit, however, which had realistic, life-size models of all kinds of sharks hanging from the walls. There was a large exhibit of other marine life, as well, including the suspended bones of an 80-foot blue whale and a 50-foot sperm whale.

I had plenty of time to read. I did not like and was unable to finish the last third of Andalus, by Jason Webster, a travelogue which delves into the Moorish roots of Spain. The historical sections are well-written, but the actual storyline is bogged down in overly sentimental language. Moving back to fiction, I read South of the Border, West of the Sun, a 200-page minor masterpiece of a novel by Japanese author Haruki Murakami. I blew threw this in one day and resolved to pick up another Murakami book before leaving Cape Town (where, at long last, I could find pretty much any book I wanted). Then I read If on a Winter's Night a Traveller, by the late Italian author Italo Calvino. Incredibly clever and often funny, I would recommend this highly as well. By the time I was done in Cape Town, I had also finished the short novel Lanzarote by Michael Houellebecq and managed to get halfway through Catch-22.

After more than enough drama, I finally received my ATM card on Thursday, the 14th. I then promptly found out that it would not function in the only "swipe" machine (that is, one in which you swipe the card in and out in one motion so that it cannot possibly eat your card) I could find and I was unwilling to risk using it again in any other sort of ATM. However, luckily, I was able to get cash from a credit exchange at an inflated rate of interest. This was fortunate because I was down to about $16 in cash --- enough to pay my hostel room for one more night and maybe buy some of the world's best falafel at Mohammed's falafel stand across the street ("Mohammed, where does falafel come from?" asked a girl in the line one night. "It comes from Mohammed," said Mohammed, keeping a perfectly straight face).

Although I was eager to get out of Cape Town already, I found that all the cheap flights to other destinations in South Africa were booked until Sunday. So I spent a few more days hanging around trying to figure out a course of action before finally booking a ticket to Durban for the 17th.

Posted by Joshua on April 16, 2005 09:43 AM
Category: South Africa

I've fallen behind again (this time due to a real lack of internet facilities during my last week in South Africa) and am starting to get the catch-up work underway. I figure a few short posts in the next few days will be enough to cover the time in Durban/Umkomaas and the trip to Tanzania.

Posted by: Josh on April 26, 2005 10:56 AM

Ok, so I am really slacking off now. But its been a tranquil few weeks, mainly spend scuba diving and relaxing. I am on the northern end of Zanzibar now where the living is slow and easy: the beaches are white, the ocean is turquoise, the fish is fresh, and most of the buildings are one story thatched-roof huts. I have started my PADI "Rescue Diver" course, which involves learning Emergency First Response techniques and practicing various in-the-water rescue and recovery techniques. Sooner or later, I will get the blog up to speed (more or less) again...

Posted by: Josh on May 2, 2005 01:16 PM
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