Dispatch from the Razor's Edge, the Blog of Michael Stephen Fuchs
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"We're Out of Here!"
plus Robben Island, and Musuem Day
"See you guys in the emergency room . . . !"
        - Gary, Weird Science

     Well, this is it. I met an American woman at the bar yesterday morning, while writing and drinking tea, who just got back from Nomad's Cape Town -> Victoria Falls tour (ie the first half of ours). Okay, for one thing, her left arm was in a cast. For another, she advised against the optional elephant-back safari. But, most terrifyingly, she's pretty sure the next cybercafe I meet will probably be in Swakopmund (on the Namibian coast, Day 7 of the tour) – and then not again until Victoria Falls (Day 19, in Zimbabwe). So it's back to work for you, good reader!

For now, though, this getting up early, hitting-the-bar-with-the-laptop-and-putting-down-some-herbal- tea-while-scribbling business I am getting quite attached to. But, this being our last morning in civilization, I suppose I can now only continue to look forward to the getting up early bit. (This was stressed at the orientation.) But, as often happens, my miserably small-potatoes issues were put into some perspective – in this case, by our tour of Robben Island yesterday.

By the time Nelson Mandela arrived on the island, 6 miles off the north coast of Cape Town, in 1963, this brutal place had been housing political opponents of whatever regime was in power (in addition to criminals, the insane, and lepers alike) for just shy of three centuries. By the height of the anti-apartheid movement, it housed nearly 2,000 political prisoners, such as – in addition to Mandela, who spent 19 years there – Walter Sisulu, and Robert Sobeque. Today, a mere decade after its prisoners of conscience were released, it is a national museum, wildlife preserve, and World Heritage Site.

Our ferry departed the Victoria and Albert waterfront area, and Mark and I, perched at the stern, watched it recede behind us. And then did all of Cape Town, as well. (*) We consider the oddity that what is an afternoon pleasure cruise for us, was the beginning of decades of a living hell for many; imagine what their float out here must have felt like.

Our tour was in two segments – a bus ride around the island, then a tour of the prison proper. The first was guided by a young, extremely winning fellow named Calvin, who spoke English (extremely winningly) as a third language. (His first is Khoso (a word which has a conspicuous click in it), and he has three "second" languages.) He gives us some background – and some very good standup – before the bus rolls into the limestone quarry where the political prisoners were made to toil, with picks, shovels, and wheelbarrows, for 13.5 years. They had inadequate clothes, no eye protection from the dust or horrible glare – and no sanitary facilities. When they were finally given two buckets, and these were placed in the cave (pictured), they used the privacy from the guards there to begin the educate one another, and to pass secret messages related to the cause. This subversion was, according to Calvin, pretty small potatoes. "But, you must remember, they did not know that one day soon busloads of tourists would be pulling into this quarry. They did not know that the freedom day would ever come. And these messages gave them hope."

In 1991, with the fall of white rule nearing, all prisoners were unconditionally pardoned. In 1995, Mandela called a reunion of prisoners. They gathered in the quarry. After speaking a few words, Mandela wandered away from the group, and he placed a single stone at the place where they had begun digging (away from which the walls had subsequently gotten a good way, I can tell you). Each of the prisoners followed, and each left a stone in the pile.

"You know what, I admire the people who were released from this prison. They did not preach hate, they did not seek revenge. Instead, they carried a message of peace that has moved South Africa, and all the world."
        - Calvin

     After this, we took a quick bathroom and photo break, on the rocky shore; after which, to our great amazement, Mark and I got left behind – by Calvin! We had spent a few minutes talking to him, then darted over to the water to shoot a couple of shots. When we turned around again . . . "Hey, that's not our bus." "And I don't recognize any of these people." "Blimey!" It was our great fortune to not only be picked up by the driver of the next bus (one Shadrack Mbobo, who made room for us on the bench beside the drivers seat), but raced right up the rear of our old group, who were just entering the prison. Thank you, Bwana Mbobo!

Here we were handed over to one of the prison tour guides – all of whom are former inmates. (In fact, the whole complex is run by former inmates, and former guards, all of whose children go to school side-by-side, in the residential village on the island.) This gentlemen (whose name I missed) had been charged with treason, smuggling arms, illegal border crossings, incitement, and a few other impressive distinctions I didn't catch, and sentenced to 48 years on Robben Island. He gave us a tour of the complex – as well as his perspective and personal experience of "life" there.

We concluded, somewhat incongruously perhaps, by viewing a whole beach of African penguins – where I tried out my massive zoom capability (this regal guy is also in the bottom left of the first photo). But much stronger impressions were left with us. Discussing it, the next day, Mark and I would conclude that South Africa has an amazingly healthy relationship with its unjust, racist past. (By contrast, we think of, say, the American south, where a lot of people are still pissed off that the civil rights movement succeeded; and Germany, where people still seem kind of neurotic and anguished and evasive about the whole Third Reich thing.) Whatever exactly went on with their whole process of reconciliation, it really seems to have worked. No one dances around what happened; no one seems to waste time with regret, or recrimination; everyone moves forward, together. (Or so it seems to us.) Where South Africa used to be kind of a global symbol of injustice, now they seem to be a light for the rest of us.

On our walk back from the waterfront, the Table Cloth rolled in. Very cool! And we walked back through Bo Kaap, the traditional Muslim neighborhood, which, alack, we found more seedy and threatening than anything. But it had some nice bits. We took siesta, and when we stepped out again from the Backpack, for dinner – looking forward to really putting away some Cape Malay grub (the local cuisine) – Table Mountain, and the tablecloth spilling off like a cloud waterfall, and the sunset had commenced doing amazing things. Like all great natural features, I guess, it's different in every light. I shot and shot and shot. But I knew those images, and that moment, would not store – on any size memory card. I admonished Mark stop and stand. "This is all you get," I told him.

* * *

Last day: Museum Day. It's overcast when I get up at 7 for tea and scribbling, so looks like a good day for it. Mark and I split our forces, principally so he doesn't have to be dragged through the National Gallery, and I don't have to be rushed through it. I amble back through the Company's Gardens until I find it, pay my free admission, and get busy going through it extremely leisurely. The current exhibition is called ReCOLLECTION – and it takes me a minute to pick up that the theme is the history of the museum of itself. They're showing important representative pieces, in the order in which they were acquired. The wall text is very interesting, covering the founding in 1871, the difficulties of acquiring major works as a cash-poor Colonial Museum, the ties (and binds) with the English art world, the belated acceptance of modernism (see last point), the first black (and tribal) artists to gain a place there, and finally the role of political works of art in the struggle against apartheid. (The museum was funded by the apartheid government, so displaying such works was a chancy business, which they undertook anyway.) Here are my four favorite pieces. (A lazy bastard, I got the placards in the shots, rather than writing down the artists and titles myself; naturally, I was unable to read them when I got back. Sorry.)

one | two | three | four

I've got a bit before rendevous time, so I lie in the grass for a bit, chatting with a friendly homeless guy from the townships. (If he was angling for alms, he's good; I left him a few rand – and it was my idea.) Then I slant downtown toward Green Market Square, gunning to break up some U.S. currency (my stack has nothing smaller than 20s, and nothing in Namibia probably costs more than a dollar); and grab some more mosquito repellent. On the way, I spot St. George's Cathedral, Desmond Tutu's parish. As I get back to the top of the Gardens, my path and Mark's literally intersect. We pass each other, looking studiously in other directions. When he sits, I drop my bag casually at his feet as I walk by. We laugh.

Then we hit the South African Museum. Here we find cool dioramas of Bushman life; tons of fossils, stuffed animals, and dinosaur recreations; and the money room: the Whale Well! Time well spent. We emerge, sit in the African shade for a bit, laughing more. Then we head back toward a joint on St. George's Mall called Crush, rumored to be very veg-friendly. They're closed when we get there, but the owner takes pity on my massive smoothie jones, and makes me and Mark a pair of berry smoothies. "Best smoothies in Cape Town!" she says. "Only smoothies in Cape Town! In Africa!" We have a nice chat with her; Crush has only been open a few months, and she's got the glow of the early-stage entrepreneur. I told her I'd tell all of ya'll to go to Crush when you're in Cape Town.

On our way back into the Backpack, we run into Londoners Jay, Abby, and Claire. We met them in the lounge last night. I started talking to Claire, and realized I just couldn't place her accent – I really think I was fagged from days of carefully picking out Australian, from New Zealand, from South African. (You don't want to insult anybody by accusing them of being a nationality they ain't.) And, at that point, I couldn't rouse myself to recognize an English accent! Still, on discussing this, Mark and I paused to be impressed with ourselves that we CAN tell Oz from Kiwi from Afrikaner.

Okay, that's it. We're back in the lounge, and it's hopping on a Friday night. They're grilling outside, Mark's eating a pizza, absurdly attractive young backpacker women are swarming willy nilly. And we're out of here at 6:30am. We'll miss this place. We miss you guys. See you on the Namibia coast. ("Want to say anything, Mark?" "I find I have nothing pithy to say. My mind is filled with Commonwealth chicks and Scotch." "We'll just put that down then." "Oh – tell them to make sure and straighten out the rules in advance of playing pool with a South African.")

  africa     art     cape town     dftre  
close photo of Michael Stephen Fuchs

Fuchs is the author of the novels The Manuscript and Pandora's Sisters, both published worldwide by Macmillan in hardback, paperback and all e-book formats (and in translation); the D-Boys series of high-tech, high-concept, spec-ops military adventure novels – D-Boys, Counter-Assault, and Close Quarters Battle (coming in 2016); and is co-author, with Glynn James, of the bestselling Arisen series of special-operations military ZA novels. The second nicest thing anyone has ever said about his work was: "Fuchs seems to operate on the narrative principle of 'when in doubt put in a firefight'." (Kirkus Reviews, more here.)

Fuchs was born in New York; schooled in Virginia (UVa); and later emigrated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he lived through the dot-com boom. Subsequently he decamped for an extended period of tramping before finally rocking up in London, where he now makes his home. He does a lot of travel blogging, most recently of some very  long  walks around the British Isles. He's been writing and developing for the web since 1994 and shows no particularly hopeful signs of stopping.

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ARISEN : Operators, Volume I - The Fall of the Third Temple by Michael Stephen Fuchs
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