Monday, June 3, 2013

South Africa Travel Diary 1 - Johannesburg to Cape Town

(Want to support my next adventure? Open this video, mute it, and let it play in the background as you read this post. You are wonderful!)

I left Swaziland just over a month ago now, for a month of travelling, working, and adventuring around South Africa. I had essentially no internet for the month, but I kept a journal, and took lots of pictures, and so I’m writing these blog posts based on that. With that in mind, the next few blog posts are going to be kind of a whirlwind epic narrative of what I’ve been doing for the past month. Namely, these are going to be long posts, so enjoy. At least, I did.

April 28th: Left on the school bus. It was supposed to leave at 6:15 am, but left around 7:30. I was not surprised. Stayed with a friend in Johannesburg for the night, and watched American Idol. It was my first TV pretty much since coming to Africa, and I have to say – if that show is the only impression someone were to have of America, I’m extremely worried for my country’s reputation.

April 29th: Woke up to a wonderful breakfast. I’m not sure if I’ll ever get used to the fact that mangoes are a normal food here – they make me so happy. It’s a bit ridiculous.

We headed over to Johannesburg’s Park Station to catch the bus to Cape Town. I say we, because I was with a German guy from Waterford until I left Cape Town, so for a few days. Anyways, Park Station is really massive, and was quite chaotic. The building itself looks like any station in America, but there are all these women carrying these massive bags on their heads, and all these people speaking different languages.

Unfortunately, I had a ticket on City-to-City, and as they were on strike, I was met with a bunch of iron bars instead of a bus. I quickly bought another ticket on SA Roadlink, which I later discovered was the worst bus line in South Africa, but it was fine. Half an hour later, I was on a bus, sitting between two Zulu guys who kept offering me potato chips. I was on a different bus than the guy from Waterford I was travelling with, but we figured we’d just meet up the next day in Cape Town. I had no phone, but unlike him, I was pretty confident that we’d find each other again somehow.

Five minutes after taking off, we pulled into a gas station, and the driver announced a bathroom break. To my surprise, a bunch of passengers got off, and just as quickly, a bunch of hawkers came on. I swear, you could have bought a meal and a half from everything they were selling. There was verything from bananas to razors – bizarre, but convenient, if you wanted a banana and a razor. Soon enough though, they were shooed off, the passengers brought back on, and we continued on our way.

This gas station ritual was repeated just about every half an hour for the next twenty hours.

April 30th: Still on the bus, but we’ve left kwaZulu-Natal for the Cape, and the landscape has really changed. We’re driving through valleys full of vineyards. The yellowing leaves are arranged in these exact rows, speckled with the little white houses of the workers. All around are these jagged, rocky, tan mountains, with cliffs so vertical I’m not sure anyone has ever been up there. There’s this strange layer of fog, so that you can see the valley, and the peaks, but not the base of the mountain, as if they’re attached only to the clouds, but not to the ground itself.

It’s kind of surreal. Not just the mountains. Everything. 86 miles to Cape Town. These mountains are just so, so big.

Oh, and there are baboons everywhere. I sometimes feel the need to pinch myself, so I do, and the baboons are still there, which makes me extremely happy.

I found the guy from Waterford pretty easily in Cape Town, after minor problems. But we found each other, which I consider proof to be that you don’t need a cell phone. And if that’s not proof, I don’t know what is.

We wandered through the touristy bit of Cape Town for a while, with our tramp backpacks and gear absolutely not fitting in with the polos, khakis, and handbags of most of the tourists. We made our way to the bay, and while it was anything but a beach, we scrambled down the tetrapods and stuck our feet into the water.

Cape Town feels like a cross between Chicago and somewhere like Tampa, or maybe Key West. It’s a very bizarre town. We were staying on Long Street, which as I soon found out is essentially the drugs and party street (I wouldn’t recommend staying there. Go there, sure, but it’s not a great place to go to sleep). To quote a conversation we had with a man on the street that afternoon though: “When did you get here?” “Today.” “Ah, well then you definitely want to buy some weed from me!”

May 1st: My main goal today was to find the penguins. I knew that there was a natural penguin colony near Simon’s Town, and that there was a train to Simon’s Town, but that’s all I knew.

Despite all the warnings I’ve gotten about commuter trains in South Africa, we took the commuter train, and it was fine. The train itself was rather grungy and plastered with graffiti and advertisements for penis enlargements (although to be honest, all of Cape Town was plastered with ads for penis enlargements), but the view was so spectacular. The first half of the ride was boring, but suddenly the train just burst onto the coast, with the tracks running directly adjacent to the water. Where there were beaches, I just looked out the window and saw sand and surfers and waves. Where there were no beaches, I just looked out the window and saw nothing but the water. It felt like flying – the train was close enough to the water that you didn’t even see the bit of rocks below you, just the waves. I can barely describe it, but it was really, really awesome. This picture doesn't show the awesomeness, but at least it's something:

Getting off the train in Simon’s Town, it’s really touristy. It’s one of those “one-road-and-a-beach” towns, but they had penguins, and so there we were. I mean, how many chances do you get to see WILD penguins? I had to find them. Had to.

So, we set off in search of penguins. After ten minutes of walking with zero sign of them, I asked this adorable old lady in a toy shop to give us directions. She gave us this very detailed, but also very convoluted, set of directions to Boulder’s Beach, where the penguins are. We followed her directions through an industrial park, around what was called the “Institute for Marine Technology” (but what I secretly think is just a secret military base), and found our way to a beach. A few more minutes of winding through beaches, and we found ourselves at the entrance to Table Mountain National Park, where you could… pay R40 to see the penguins.

Now, I’m all for supporting conservation efforts and everything, but I was on a budget, and I wasn’t about to chip out R40 for these penguins. The guy from Waterford I was travelling with is too much of a hipster to pay admission anyways. As he quoted to me the night before, “Curse those who place a fence around a piece of land and claim it’s theirs. Curse the man who listens.”

So, we just walked along this random path without paying admission, hoping that maybe some penguins had stumbled away, and would stumble into us. Sure enough, after a few minutes, there was a penguin right next to the path, and then another, and another. They’re such bizarre little animals, but I was just so happy to see them!

After that, we wandered across some other beaches. We looked at anemones in a tide pool, watched a French kid beat up a jellyfish, tried to stop him, gave up, and attempted to make a seaweed lasso to capture tourists. Spoiler alert – it didn’t work.

May 2nd: After wandering around in the morning, making plans to climb Table Mountain, abandoning those plans in the face of fog, and realizing that at this point we wanted to do very different things with our remaining time in Cape Town, the guy from Waterford and I split ways. At first, it was bizarre to realize that I was wandering around Cape Town by myself, but it was really cool.

Being my nerdy self, first place I wandered into was a court room. Since Cape Town is the judicial capital of South Africa, I figured it might be interesting. Surprisingly enough, they didn’t even x-ray my backpack, and so I wandered in, and opened doors until I found some people standing at the front of one, talking. There was a woman sitting at the front, presumably the judge. Spectators like myself were seated at the very far back of what was already quite a large room. Voices from the front kind of filtered to our seats, but I couldn’t make out faces, as they were seated a bit lower down, and there was a wooden thing in between.

They were bringing people in, reading their charges, and asking if they wanted a lawyer. A bit disappointed that they weren’t running actual trials, it was interesting to see anyways. They all seemed to be murderers, which was one thing, but the other interesting bit was the language barrier.
The judge would ask what language they spoke, which was usually Xhosa, and then some woman from in front below the barrier would translate everything. I simply can’t imagine going to a court where I don’t speak the language. It doesn’t seem like a very fair shot.

Thirty seconds after each defendant was dragged in, these two big police guys dragged them out. The entire time, the judge just looked bored. I can’t imagine these trials are very fair.

Later that day, I was just tired, so I pitched up to the bus rank a bit early. The bus strike was there, much bigger than it was in Johannesburg. There were about a hundred people marching and singing in the station, and another couple hundred watching. The sign said that they were from SATAWU (The South African Transport and Allied Workers Union).

Compared to most strikes, I have to say that this one is less angry, and somehow more celebratory. People are singing, smiling, and dancing as they march. Empowered, I suppose would be the right word. The bizarre thing is the way that the police are involved. In America, the police are always looking like they have to be there, and that they’re against all the hooligans protesting in the streets. In Cape Town? The police were dancing right alongside the protesters, raising their fists into the air with the rest of the crowd.

I wish I could have given the money for my useless bus ticket to the protesters, instead of having it just sucked into the beyond.

Now, when leaving a town you’re visiting, especially one you haven’t had the chance to spend very much time in, you can’t help but wonder, “Have I seen this town? Really seen it?” I’ve spent two nights in Cape Town, which is essentially nothing. I’ve gone to the beach. I’ve been to the piers. I’ve walked through District Six. I’ve seen Long Street at three in the morning. Yet, the clouds made hiking Table Mountain pointless. I didn’t feel like paying the admission fee to the Apartheid Museum. I haven’t eaten in a restaurant at all.

Do I know Cape Town? Probably not. At least, not the Cape Town of the tourism books. They don’t write about how to avoid the police as you’re climbing on the rocks by the water. There isn’t any written page about where to find bus strikes and demonstrations. Tourists aren’t supposed to carry their backpacks into the courthouse. Nobody writes online reviews of bakeries overlooking gas stations.

So maybe, my time was wasted. Maybe I’m a fool for spending my time in Cape Town as I did. Maybe I missed “Cape Town,” but I think I found myself my own version of Cape Town, and that’s the point. So, maybe I missed what I was “supposed” to see, but that’s not to say that I didn’t see anything, and so I leave Cape Town happily.

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