Friday, May 30, 2014

Cape Town: Getting Home

I had time for a leisurely breakfast at my favorite coffee shop before leaving for the airport.  Cape Town is such a laid-back and friendly city that I felt very much at home there, and was sorry to have to leave. I definitely would like to return. My visit was so short, there were a number of things I didn't have a chance to do, like visit Robben Island, or climb Table Mountain. Still, I'd rather have a short visit than no visit at all. A few observations:
  • Pork Pie hats!  I saw men wearing them everywhere.
  • Walking: Being a pedestrian in Cape Town can be a challenge, especially if you're from a country where people drive on the right.  There aren't any crosswalks, except at lights (which they call robots), and cars don't necessarily stop at red lights at night.  On the other hand, I didn't sense that drivers felt entitled to hit pedestrians, and no prissy insistence that pedestrians stay confined to crosswalks, an attitude I encounter almost every day in the US.  
  • English is only one of eleven official languages in South Africa.  In Cape Town, English is the third-most commonly spoken language, after Xhosa and Afrikaans.  Everyone speaks English, but it's likely not to be the first language of most people you meet and sometimes it can be difficult to understand the accents, especially over the phone, as I learned when I called to book a cab to take me to the airport.  Near the end of the conversation, the man I was speaking to asked a question I couldn't understand.  I asked him to repeat himself and still couldn't understand, so I said "yes" and hung up with the vague, unhappy suspicion that I had unwittingly cancelled the whole transaction.  WHICH I HAD.  (Always call back later to confirm.) I feel like a dolt for not being able to effortlessly switch between languages the way everybody else in the world can.
  • It's late autumn there--and I've heard that winter in Cape Town can be miserable and rainy.  I was lucky and enjoyed gorgeous weather almost every day: sunny, very dry, and windy; the sort of days where you're warm in the sun, but need a sweater if you're in the shade.  If I could re-do this trip, I'd pack a scarf and a wool sweater.
In Johannesburg, or Joburg as they call it, you have to go through passport control to get out of the country and when it was my turn, the agent swiped my passport and then his eyes bugged out of his head and he said, "It can't be!" He swiped it again, pursed his lips for a minute, didn't seem completely satisfied, but ultimately decided that his original assumption that whatever the computer told him about me couldn't be true and he shrugged and returned my passport and I was on my way.  (I guess I will never know what the issue was.)

Tambo airport is pretty hectic--"hectic" is used as a slang term in South Africa, meaning "bad."  It is however, your LAST CHANCE TO BUY AN OSTRICH EGG.   I found my gate and soon realized with dismay that I was surrounded by elderly Americans who had been on safari. How did I know they'd been on safari?  They were wearing khaki vests and pants with more pockets than a porcupine has quills.  They were, of course, very loud and were doing silly things like high-fiving each other after finding a shop that sold bottled water.  One group of them wandered away and left their luggage unattended for a good fifteen minutes.  I KNOW I said earlier that one shouldn't assume that all Americans are big, fat, stupid, and obnoxious, but these people were doing their best to validate all the stereotypes.

Eventually, as if informed by telepathy, people started lining up.  There hadn't been any sort of announcement that our flight would board, but I could see that the line wasn't going to get any shorter so I took my place in it, and soon airport officials began organizing us into two lines, according to sex. ("This line please, beautiful laidees.")  That was pretty ominous and I could see preparations for some heavy-duty security.  (We had already been through the typical airport security screening.)

All of us in the ladies' line were firmly frisked by female security guards and then our carry on bags were searched.  Men were searched by male guards.  Then we stood in a different line, slightly closer to the jetway, and waited until absolutely everybody had been searched. I made conversation with the people in front of me, two men and a ten year old boy, all from Oklahoma. (They were not part of the elderly safari group.) They had taken the boy to Africa for his first big hunting trip and they were worried about how they'd ever get their guns back into the US.  It seems a vital piece of paperwork may have been kept by the S. African government.  The delay caused by the long boarding process meant they would definitely miss their connecting flight to Houston.

Eventually we began to shuffle forward.  About halfway to the plane, we were each given a numbered card, which had to be handed to a security officer at the entrance to the plane--to make sure nobody left the line and didn't board.

God, this is getting long, and it's not as funny in writing as it is in my head.  Anyhoo, we landed in Dakar without incident.  This was a refueling non-layover, in which some people get off, but the rest of us stay on the plane, and then new people join the flight.  After the cleaning crew and caterers had been through the cabin, Senegalese security boarded the plane and searched every seat--going through the pockets, feeling under the headrests, etc.  It was 1:00am, our time, so you can imagine the disoriented grumpiness.  Once that was over, there was an announcement:  "Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for cooperating with phase one of the security process."  Before you can say OMGWATSPHASETWO,   you're directed to take all your hand luggage out of the overhead and off the floor.  You hold everything in your lap and they come through the cabin and remove everything that isn't claimed.

The most safariest of the safari ladies didn't pay attention to the instructions and security was flapping her packages of freeze-dried antelope, or whatever the hell it was she had in the overhead, shouting, "Ma'am is this yours?"  She seemed barely responsive and her friends had to vouch for her belongings.  (Later, when she got up to go to the bathroom, she paused at my seat, seemingly unable to walk any further, and I realized she must have taken enough benzos to drop an ox.  I seriously thought she was going to puke on me, but she somehow managed to drag herself the rest of the way to the bathroom.)

Anyway, after the rigorous two-phase security process came the ritual baptism with insecticide (I was old hat now) and we were off for Washington.  I slept pretty well on the plane, and since we landed at 6:30 am, there were no lines to get through customs and passport control.  I actually felt well enough to stop at the Wegman's in Gainesville on the way home, and arrived in Charlottesville with a week's worth of groceries.  I'm still curious about the guys from Oklahoma--did they get their guns back?  Did they ever make it to Houston?


  1. Now I want to know if they made it home as well.

    A close family friend has gone hunting in Africa with her family. They have some amazing trophies that I slightly covet. Also, the first time I saw her zebra skin rug and admired it, I made a mental note to never upset her when she told me she had shot it herself.

    Pork Pie hats! Did you get pictures?

  2. Wow, what a trek just to get home! I travelled to Cape Town last year and didn't notice too much scrupulous checking of luggage...maybe I was like the zoned out woman and just too tired to notice by the time I came to fly home!

    1. I suspect that the crazy security is for this flight in particular, because of the fueling stop in Dakar, where some people get off, but most people stay on the plane. It would be easy to leave a bomb on the plane and then get off in Dakar.

  3. Wow. This makes me want to travel by sea or land instead of air. Your trip sounds great, but that airport experience would have been a little scary...especially solo. You brave lady.

  4. WOWZERS. I can't say this makes me feel like traveling international any time soon. But what I really want to know is if you bought the ostrich egg. IT WAS YOUR LAST CHANCE!

    1. LOL, sadly I wasted my LAST CHANCE and did not come home with an ostrich egg. I am OK with that.