The brightest and least corrupt city

Tuesday morning, March 16, 2010
I woke up Sunday morning feeling like a Biblical plague victim. In addition to the shingles (fading but still annoying), sore throat, sore knee, and wracking insomnogenic cough I’ve been dealing with for days, my eyes were glued shut with the unmistakable evidence of conjunctivitis — pink eye! But after two aspirin and two good cups of coffee (one of the many virtues of the inestimable B&B where we’re staying), we took to the streets of Cape Town. An instant tonic!

We dropped off a bag of reeking clothes at the 24-hour laundry on the high street (just a few blocks away) and learned that we could pick up our washed and folded clothes in a few hours. We visited the nearby 24-hour pharmacy and bought more of the cough medicine that seemed to help Steve last week. We’d learned that a world-famous cycling race would be taking place in the city — the Cape Argos, I think it’s called, with something like 35,000 riders from all over the world competing over a grueling 66-mile course –and the start and finish were located just blocks from our hotel. It was a rousing scene: flags flying, peppy pop music playing over the loudspeakers, supporters cheering, the excited voice of an announcer. Again the crowd was predominantly white, and I noted with amusement the OSHA-like tone of the sign affixed to a rope barrier surrounding one sandy area. “Potential tripping hazard.” This American-style safety consciousness struck me as quaint, considering that this is a country where young girls routinely get raped by HIV-infected men who believe sex with a virgin will cure their ailment. (That ailment afflicts some 10% of South Africans, btw — the highest AIDS infection rate in the world.)

Paul Theroux in Dark Star Safari records that when he arrived in Cape Town, it struck him as being “the brightest and least corrupt” city he’d ever seen. I could understand what he meant. The wind was blowing hard, scrubbing the sunny skies of any evidence of pollution. The Waterfront shopping center, redeveloped in the 90s, reminded me of Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s wildly touristy, jammed with several malls and dozens upon dozens of restaurants, but maybe because it adjoins the section of the waterfront that’s still an working port, I liked it more than I do the San Francisco institution or the Disneyesque Seaport Village in San Diego. I would have enjoyed spending several more hours poking around.

But we had other touristic missions to attend to. After lunch, we drove to the Table Mountain Cable Car station. Hiking to the top of the iconic massif had been near the top of my Cape Town To Do list. But given my cough and still-recovering knee, we’d decided it might be more prudent to simply take the cable car. Alas the strong winds had forced its closing for the afternoon. The few vendors clustered next to the cable car entrance looked bored. A white guy at a t-shirt stall was tossing raisons to a big black bird with dramatic red epaulets on its wings. “Red-wing starling,” he informed us. “Member of the raven family.” He enthused about how intelligent the birds were; claimed they could identify individual human faces and come when called. They were serially monogamous and fiercely territorial. “If another male came along when the male was here, it would be terrible.” He shuddered. Did they peck at each other with their beaks, I asked. He grimaced, like a man recalling a ritual disemboweling. He said the male redwings stabbed at each other, savage. He tried to entice the female closer with additional raisons, but she wouldn’t comply. “Must have already had her fill.”

In the late afternoon, we spent 45 minutes at the South African Museum, a disappointing hodge-podge. But an excellent Indian dinner at the Waterfront lifted our spirits, and everything about our trip to Robben Island yesterday morning went well. Steve commented afterward that the notorious holding ground for South Africa’s black male political prisoners didn’t hold any surprises for him, being featured as it was, in the recent movie Invictus. For me, though, there were a few, One of our guides was a fellow who served time on the island between 1984 and 1991 for a terrorist conviction. He old us his “terrorism” had been ignited by his outrage over the disparities between black and white educational standards in the 1970s, when the government was spending about 47 rands per year, on average, for every black child, and 2,000 for every white one. Another surprise was learning that 9 former prison guards are included among the 150 hardy individuals who live on the island full-time. Why haven’t they been attacked and driven away, long ago? But Mandela’s most searing message was the need for reconciliation, and we’ve heard it repeated over and over in our travels here.

After recording his initial good first impression, Theroux added that he soon learned about Cape Town’s frightening crime statistics. He also visited a township here, like the ones we saw Saturday as we drove in from the wine country: squalid, unspeakably crowded, an implosion of impoverished humanity that makes Tijuana’s shanties look buccolic in comparison. With only two and a half days left until we head for the airport, I doubt we’ll see much of such misery. We’ll depart with a woefully meager view of what’s here. But I’ve become resigned to that here, in one of the most complicated places I’ve ever visited.

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