- Pico Iyer
Special Dispatch Commemoration: On this day five years ago I set foot off my homeland landing in Toronto, Ontario, Canada for the first time ever. Was November 1, 1997 the best night of my life? At the time, it was pretty darned great. I was awake, I was alive, my eyes were open and opened. I really liked myself that day and I met someone whom I liked, and continue to like, a whole awful lot. So, yeah, it was good. But the best? In retrospect given all it has come to represent, and the inflection point it became in the narrative of my life then, yeah, it was probably the best night of my life.
Up early(-ish, well, relative, considering) this morning, right after publishing last night. Yesterday, after our first night and deathly sleep, I got up early to publish (there are two aging Win98 machines with dial-up connections in the lounge here), and was pretty knocked out by the breakfast crowd in the courtyard. But I ultimately went back to the room, fell over again and didn't wake until 2pm. Today, I've decided to get up and stay up. And get caught up. (After yesterday's tour orientation, I'm beginning to get a suspicion that once we head into the bush ya'll aren't going to be hearing from me with great frequency. Don't all gasp in horror and denial at once.)
Here's what I look like. Here's what it looks like to my left, out the lounge, to and over the courtyard. (Oh, and I'm also listening to Curve, Shriekback, and Morcheeba, at unobtrusive volume. I love this technological life.)
Mark: Apparently, Cape Town is the place to come if you want to get into the mercenary trade.
Michael: Lots o' gunslingers in town, eh?
M: Enabled by all the guns they allow in this country. Not to mention, there are probably plenty of side employment opportunities, given that every shop and house has one of those "Armed Response" security company placards out front.
M: . . . Why am I constantly affecting this silly South African, or maybe Australian, accent?
Thus began our banter on our first full day, as we applied boot sole to pavement in the late afternoon and headed downtown. Our destination: The Robben Island tour, which departs from the V&A Waterfront district. I was having trouble remembering whether it was a three, or four, hour tour and we had to be at our tour orientation meeting at 7pm. It was looking dicey. The sun was blazing.
M: Look, Mark a growth opportunity. I pulled the flaps of my hat down.
M: When I'm wearing mine, we may have to coordinate you up and me down, or you left up and me left down never the same.
M: Not that I want to exclude you; but for me, I'm afraid it comes down to a simple and very personal melanoma vs. coolness calculation. [Obviously, flaps down make for a much less Intrepid-looking downright goofy-looking, in fact Explorer]
M: Fine. But if it's a three-hour tour, you definitely get to be Gilligan.
We missed the last ferry in any case, and booked for 1pm the next day. Our Plan B consisted of me coo'ing Mark into following along with the walking tour in my book.
M: It's got all the "agreed-upon" must-see sites, in a logical, walkable order.
M: Agreed upon by the writers of travel books.
M: Nolo contendre. Still, I will assert that there is such a thing as a shared culture. Five years from now, I'm going to be at a cocktail party, talking to some brilliant, well-traveled, beautiful woman, and we'll find out we've both been to Cape Town, and she'll say, "Oh, isn't City Hall just the greatest Italian Renaissance building in sub-Saharan Africa?" and I don't want to have to say, "Erm, well, I didn't really go by there."
M: So, you want to make sure and have something to talk about at cocktail parties with all the other people who read the guidebooks.
M: I guess, now that I vocalize it, there might be something actually pretty cool about saying, "Well, I didn't go by there."
M: You might have things to talk about with the people who didn't read the guidebooks. Which I won't comment on which type of people might be more interesting people
M: . . .
We walked away from the water, passing under a number of cool, civic-y, street-spanning banners. Table Mountain, as ever, hovered over everything. I have to confess, I'm knocked out by the fact that there's a gorgeous produce stand every three street corners or so. A man like me could eat (and is eating) like a king on the streets of this town. It's like fast food for health nuts: "Gimme a four-pack of the mini-bananas. To go!"
After an entirely obligatory video arcade stop (M: "Couldn't go to Africa and not at least see what they've got to play"), we zipped by the Castle of Good Hope, the oldest European building in South Africa. Completed in 1679 as the headquarters of the Dutch East India Company, it was for 150 years the administrative, social, and economic heart of the city. It's still in use by the military. It has a moat!
After a bit more ambling, including through the Flower Market, we made the obligatory stop to savor local cafe culture. We lucked into "Moroka, Cafe Africaine", where the lovely, patient, and solicitous person helping us (pictured on the right she smiled for the camera, and I didn't even realize she was in the frame!) brought me and Mark (pictured on the left) grapetizers (fruit juice and seltzer) and dishes of Umnqusho, a stellar pate-ish bean dish. Yum.
We and our happy stomachs left and continued north to the Company Gardens, site of the original vegetable patch which was the raison d'etre of Cape Town to provide a bit of food to the sailors on ships rounding the Cape of Good Hope on the Indian spice route. This big, leafy, pretty, very tranquil urban park is home to the Houses of Parliment, a statue of 19-century Prime Minister Cecil Rhodes, the African Library (one of the first free libraries in the world), and a really striking, open park under the shadow of the mountain (Mark pictured on park bench).
Exiting that, we glimpsed the Nelson Hotel (or "The Nellie"), where, during the Boer War, a young journalist by the name of Winston Churchill was often seen pacing the corridors. Nearby, South Africa's first Lutheran Church and a visual frame which struck me as an interesting combination of the new, the old, and the ancient. This looped us back to Long Street, which is where Nomad is located. We had a few minutes to kill before our meeting, so we strolled and window-shopped.
Mark: The woman I meet wearing this dress is the one I'm going to marry.
Happily nervous, we rolled into Nomad where we got two hours of friendly admonishments about such things as the fact that malaria kills 21 million Africans a year and that, moreover, we are going to be "overland" in Africa, so we'd be well-advised to be prepared for absolutely anything whatsoever. (We are, and like it.) We also got to meet about half of our fellow tourees: an Aussie, an Irishwoman, a German woman, several States-siders, and two Spanish women who have zero English. They all seemed very nice, as did our two guides, Paul and Jo.
We strolled home in the cool evening, which brings us back to last night, and sitting around the Backpack being social. (Mark also spent some time watching, and taunting, two Aussies playing chess at the table next to ours. He was actually pretty well-behaved until they left, when he noted (granted, I asked), "They play chess about as well as my cat. And I don't have a cat.") And that brings us to this morning, where I'm back in the room (playing MP3s really sucks battery), where Mark is showering, and I'm trying to finish this off. We like being up to date, finally.
Today: The Robben Island tour, and we'll see what else.