March 26, 2005

Into Africa and out again, Part I

South Africa

I am traveling in a style to which I could easily become accustomed, in a land best known to me for its formerly egregious laws, i.e., the politics and policies of apartheid. Officially, those policies exist no more, and the country has had ten years of "reconciliation."

High bidder on a five-star trip from a dot com site, I have become Eloise at the Plaza in a matter of minutes. In our hotel, we sip afternoon tea, tuck into smoked salmon sandwiches, take our scones with clotted cream and raspberry jam. Porters carry everything including my pocketbook to our room. We ring for housekeeping, have the beds rearranged. I phone reception for a wake-up call, ask the concierge about a massage, arrange private chauffeured tours of Table Mountain, the Cape Peninsula, the winelands. I am surprised only that the maids have not unpacked for us.

This is not the Africa of the wild, nor is it the Africa of its indigenous people. It is the Africa of the British colonists, circa 1900. We are cosseted and coddled: our nightgowns are laid out for us at evening turndown. This is how I traveled as a child, when service had great formality and grace, before the age of do-it-yourself wheeling suitcases, at a time when my aunt packed steamer trunks to winter in the Arizona desert, and my family summered for a full month in the Adirondacks.

My companion, my friend from book club, is in her late 70s and has traveled the world. She is the only person I know whom I could ask, "do you want to go to Africa?" on a Thursday, and have her rearrange her plans to make the trip possible by the following morning. When I grow up, I hope to be as energetic, inspiring, wickedly funny, and consistently curious as she is. I aspire to her joie de vivre.

She notes that South African hotels seems unable to fathom two women traveling together as friends. We are seen as mother and daughter, which makes us laugh, for neither of us has ever married, much less reproduced. We have to request, again, separate beds.

I would bet my last five Rand that this country is no less racist, classist, or sexist than the one I come from. It has simply acknowledged more plainly -- and more violently -- what the American dream refuses to admit: some of us are more privileged than others, and many will not have the chance to trade up the way the dream would have us believe. (Emma at War on Error is having a brilliant discussion on class in America.)

I am mindful of that, mindful of where I fit on the socioeconomic scale and how little of it is of my own making. Much of it is genetic roulette -- yes, I come from a line of rich matriarchs, but that line also has enough synaptic lapses and medical predispositions to make me say, I would have done without the "privilege" if I could have skipped the addictive family history, the migraines, the veins of major clinical depression that have punctuated my life.

The truth is, we are not identical, and for numerous reasons, some of us have more and some have less. I have a strong mind and better sense of the ironies of my life than does someone who has less time or money to strengthen native intelligence with education or analyze the world as it crosses her path. I'm also old enough not to apologize for what I have been given, but simply to be grateful to have it.

I digress: into Africa is how I began this entry and it is South Africa I wish to describe, both city and country. The light is different here, so close to the southernmost point of this continent. It seems kinder here, less harsh than the sun I am used to. The sky, even in the city, is clearer. I see more stars in one night than I will in the proverbial month of Sundays in New York.

South African poverty doesn't faze me: there is none more stark than in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, which I visited annually for close to 20 years when my father was alive. Port-au-Prince makes South African townships look positively prosperous by comparison.

Judging by the townships' depiction in Johannesburg's Apartheid Museum, we see there that the typical shanty may not have running water, but it does have television, and hence, electricity. It is on the grid in a way coup-stricken Haitian villages have not, in my years of visiting or since, ever had a chance to be.

In Cape Town, houses in the Muslim district are painted bright shades of purple, pink, and yellow. They appear to have no lawns. In the Jewish district -- so deemed by our guide -- the houses are large, hidden behind concrete walls, topped off by barbed-wire or electric fencing. ADT, the home security company, does big business here. The same description goes for similar properties in Johannesburg.

Everyone is cut off from one another. There is no neighborhood watch here; it is every family for itself. No one takes a chance on exposure to the violence of economic inequities, disparities that seem far greater and potentially threatening than in the U.S.

We don't ask why the residential areas are designated by their predominant religion, or where the Christians are hiding. We are on a private tour, and it seems impertinent to inquire. Apparently, in Cape Town and Johannesburg, Jews inhabit the better neighborhoods, at least according to our guides. Our guides/chauffeurs know us to be white, but don't necessarily perceive me to be as Jewish.

My friend was raised Catholic. She and I speak in French when we don't want the guides to understand us. (In Johannesburg, word traveled fast that we preferred to tour the entire city vs. Soweto alone.)

We are shown government-built upgraded homes for the poor, replacing the shantytowns of apartheid. South Africa may be a democracy, but that doesn't make it a safe place to live, particularly not in the major cities or the "better" suburbs. It makes New York look as secure and controlled as Disneyland.

From Cape Point, I am nearly at the more familiar Cape Horn, where the Atlantic and Indian oceans cross. I can almost see the end of the earth. The vegetation looks different. I can't describe the trees by name, but then again, in my own city I scarcely see trees, hardly know deciduous from evergreen. We drive past ostrich farms, pass various architectural styles from the English, Dutch, and Mediterranean, all ablaze in the African sun.

In the Cape winelands, we sample various vintages, grapes with which we are unfamiliar like pinotage and ones I know better, like shiraz. My companion knows her wine well, from Australian to Chilean, Californian, French, and beyond. She has the vocabulary of a connoisseur. We stop at a winery/goat farm, where the house brand is Goats do Roam, and the cheese complements it. Another winery where we lunch, at Chaminoux, is French-inspired.

Through the centuries many European countries have sent people to this country, either to gain economic privilege or be banned from the European country that would not grant religious freedom. This includes a mix of the Portuguese and Spanish to the Dutch, French Huegenots, German Jews, and the English. Peace is a new notion here, as nationalities have clashed for centuries, mostly over economics and less over religion, with racial tensions filtered throughout.

We walk through the university town of Stellenbosch, where, ironically, we can't find a bookstore, but we can find our share of art galleries, grand estates, and vineyards. This is small-town, South Africa style. It is the first place where all the entrances haven't been made into fortresses. I am reminded of Adrienne Rich: "The door itself/Makes no promises./ It is only a door."


Blogger GuusjeM said...

I remember travel with style and grace too - it's a pity that it is no more except in rare instances and for people with much, much money. Another example of our world being just little more hectic and lot less uncivilized

9:49 AM  

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