Thursday, July 12, 2007

Whooping it up

I spent the night before flying listening to the family tell never ending stories about horrible violent crime - including rapes, car jackings and murders. I was starting to think I had lost my mind even thinking I could do this.

I worked a second job to pay for this trip to South Africa in 1999. I read Nelson Mandela's autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, during my breaks and while riding the subway. I wanted to visit this new democracy while a living legend was still her president.

My first few days were spent in Johannesburg with a woman I met in a Paris youth hostel 9 years earlier. We had exchanged letters over the years but in early 1998 she had access to reliable email. We decided I would come visit for three weeks in January. I would start in Johannesburg, fly to Cape Town for a solo trip, return to take a tour of Kruger National Park, then finish in Jo'burg.

The night before my solo travels we were in her parents' backyard with extended family, eating barbecue, and they are telling never ending stories about crime. Crime rates, statistics, personal stories, stories they had heard, on and on and on.

I have no room lined up in Cape Town and don't know anyone there. I've done this before, traveled alone into a city and found a room after getting oriented but for some reason this felt crazy. Like I was intentionally setting myself up to be hurt by a crazed criminal, or criminals.

I had already bought the round trip ticket on South Africa Air. The next morning, my friend drove me to the airport and wished me "Bon Voyage". I still remember the feeling of terror trying to wind its way up from my stomach to my throat. It would occasionally get as far as the back of my mouth, and I would tear up as I tried not to scream or cry.

But then I saw magic out of my plane window. I saw textures I didn't know land could make. Mountains with crevices and trees. Later it was a flat that went on forever. As the plane flew into the setting sun there were long shadows that seem to go on for miles.

I arrived in Cape Town and eventually found a room in a quiet inn with a view of Table Mountain. One night a German family staying at the inn insisted on taking me with them to watch the sun set from windy Signal Hill. I visited the island where Mandela and other political prisoners were held during the long struggle to end apartheid. I walked up to Table Mountain by myself. I visited wineries, ran on the beach with African penguins and saw the point where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet.

The last night I decided to treat myself to a fancy meal in a small Italian restaurant I had noticed during my hike up to Table Mountain. Walking in alone it became clear the waiters didn't know how to treat me. I was sat at a table and they hovered. Every time I put down my water glass it was filled again to the top. I decided to be extravagant and order a salad, main course and desert along with a glass of wine. All this food meant I would be at the table for a long time.

During the meal I watched the staff and the street outside the window. I enjoyed the food and the wine. When the check came, the total came to 56 Rand, or around $8 US. At that price I felt like I was stealing their food and since they had been so attentive, I left a $10 tip.

As I walked out the waitstaff could be heard whooping as they cleared my table. It was either a whoop from my generosity or utter stupidity. I didn't care. I was whooping too.

This is my submission to Scribbit's monthly Write-Away contest. This month's topic was "My Most Adventurous Moment." Check her out on Friday, July 20th for a list of all the submissions.


Scribbit said...

I've always wanted to see South Africa, your trip sounds fascinating. Thanks for entering it. Good luck!

Jenn in Holland said...

Wow, Allison. Wow.
I love the last paragraph, it is perfect summation to a great piece. What an incredible adventure. Let's see, while you were off exploring South Africa in 1999, what was I doing? Oh, right. Changing diapers and chasing toddlers. Man, it sure seems like I have been running that adventure for a long time!

Good luck in the contest. I am holding fists for you!

Jami said...

Good luck! If you don't win, you was robbed!

Fourier Analyst said...

What a great story and a fantastic adventure. I am afraid my adventuring days are much further in the past, though I am sure there are a few stories in there. Maybe for a future contest. Good luck to you in this one!!

Ambassador said...

Even though I've heard parts of this story, I don't think you've ever told it so beautifully. It's helped get me off by butt to post today (I actually took the day off!!) and do the 8 Random Things tag...had to include my end of the story about the ring...

Keep up the wonderful work. You are settling into a great voice for your work. Love it all! Ken

Brillig said...

Oh my goodness! What an incredible adventure! Amazing stuff! And I agree with Ambassador--this was BEAUTIFULLY written! You'd have my vote for sure.

Anonymous said...

I've would love to see where two oceans meet. A while ago, I read the book Disgrace, which takes place in South Africa. A violent crime occurs in the book and made me think to myself... hmm, maybe South Africa will go lower on my list of places to travel. After reading your post, it has moved back up a few notches (as if this is some actual list I have printed somewhere ;p).

Anonymous said...

I can't believe I just wrote "I've would." Apologizing for the poor grammar now...

Daisy said...

It took a lot of courage to plan the trip, and even more to complete it. Wow!!