In February, hopefully about two days before a major storm dumps 16 inches of snow on New York City and sends temperatures plummeting to -5, I’ll fly to sunny Cape Town, South Africa for a two-week stay with my wife’s family.
Louise will fly there three weeks ahead of me, giving her five weeks with the family she left 12 years ago, on a trip to the United States she figured would last maybe a year.
On Tuesday night I bought our tickets, navigating my way through the online booking system that is complicated by the fact no direct flights go from New York City to Cape Town. You can fly to England for a daylong layover or to the Middle East for a nine-hour-long one. Not an appealing option? Then you can fly to Amsterdam for about a six-hour layover, not enough time to have any fun in that city. A few years ago, Delta offered nonstop flights to Cape Town, but it quickly ended. Too beneficial for consumers.
So we fly to Johannesburg. After a brief stopover we take the 2-hour flight to Cape Town. All told we’ll sit on the plane for about 20 hours. About halfway through the trip, the plane lands in Dakar, where we can’t get off the plane but soldiers get on it to search for drugs and spray for malaria.
The trip there takes forever, but the 14 days in Cape Town go by in a flash. I only get to see my in-laws every two years, surely a dream for many married people but an unfortunate reality for me. Louise’s mom, stepdad, and two brothers welcomed me into their family, even though I played a part in taking her from them. Louise’s father died when she was just 8 and I never did get the opportunity to meet her Portuguese grandparents on her father’s side. But nearly everyone else in her extended family remains in Cape Town – her nieces, feisty grandma, aunts, uncles, cousins.
People often call Cape Town the most beautiful city in the world and you won’t receive any arguments from anyone who spends a day on the beaches or takes a trip to the top of Table Mountain or makes the Chapman’s Peak Drive.
Millions of people learned more about the city during the 2010 World Cup, but it remains something of a hidden attraction, owing to its location and its past. The most beautiful city in the world is in a country that was long one of the most troubled. Apartheid is dead but so many problems live on – shocking poverty, high crime rates, unemployment, lingering racial divisions.
Growing up, I knew what everyone else knew about South Africa. The images I remembered were of riots, racist signs that seemed to be left over from America in the ’60s, Mandela and Zola Budd. If I had never married Louise that’s about all I probably would have ever known about the country, until the time I would have learned to curse the vuvuzela.
Now it’s a city and country I love. I’ve already started counting down the days until I’ll leave New York and arrive in Cape Town. It’s always a great vacation. So here, then, a bit more info on Cape Town and South Africa, along with a little slideshow from my previous trips. Vacation slides from strangers – no, no, sit down, don’t go. It won’t be that bad.
We made our first trip to Cape Town as a married couple over Christmas of 2006. When her mom found out Louise was back on her way to South Africa, she transformed a double-garage into a suite where Louise and I live in luxury during our time in the country. The whole family chipped in, redoing the attached bathroom, redecorating and adding amenities that you’d normally find in a five-star hotel.
It’s a giant space, with a living room, big closets, and an office. It’s bright and peaceful, an especially perfect place to crash for eight hours after spending nearly 24 hours in the air. When the sun goes down and the hot South African day gives way to a cool, moonlit Cape Town evening, I pull the guitar down from the wall and serenade Louise with Simon & Garfunkel songs. Actually, the guitar’s never left the wall. I don’t know how to play a guitar. I can’t sing. But I think about it.
This is the table I sat at with Louise’s brother Anthony and his friend. They took me out for happy hour, cheap beer at a restaurant on the beach that’s a perfect place to get drunk and watch amazing sunsets. Even with Louise’s warning to go easy on me echoing in his ears, Anthony made sure we always had plenty to drink. He kept ordering, wanting to get them bought and paid for before the 120-minute happy hour ended. I think he wanted to see if an American could keep up with the two South Africans. Some Americans could. Not me. I let down our country, but saved my liver. Anthony didn’t so much drink the beers as consume them whole, seemingly in one gulp, while I sat there…sipping. The only thing missing from this emasculation was a Zima. With Anthony’s ability to down beer, he belonged on Coney Island, either as part of a boardwalk attraction or a Fourth of July event broadcast on ESPN. I’m sure this trip will include a similar outing. The location might be different. The result will be the same.
On our last trip we took a boat on rough seas out to a place called Seal Island. It’s an incredible sight and worth the upset stomach you might get as the boat rocks on the way there and back. According to Wikipedia, “The dense population of fur seals at certain times of the year attracts the seal’s main predator, the Great White Shark. Seal Island provides unique opportunities for those who wish to observe attacks by white sharks on Cape Fur seal and to observe social interactions amongst the species.”
Um, hmm. Louise failed to mention that before we bought our tickets. And “social interactions”? Wonder if the seals disagree with that description, which sounds more like something you’d read when someone’s describing Victorian London.
This is on the legendary Chapman’s Peak Drive, a place where you want to watch your speeds and falling boulders. It offers spectacular views as it winds through the southwestern tip of the country. Built partly by using labor from convicts, the drive opened in 1922 after seven years of construction. Over the years it’s been closed because of those falling rocks and fires. Giant nets pick off the boulders. When you drive past those you can’t help but pray the engineers know what they’re doing. It’s been open on both of our trips together to Cape Town and hopefully we’ll take a third drive soon. I’ll only have my eyes closed on some of the turns.
I’m still a novice when it comes to the most popular sports in South Africa. I can understand rugby a bit because it’s a little like football and I understand cricket a bit because it’s a little like baseball. But cricket, in particular, remains confounding. On my first trip to Cape Town, I discovered that the “test matches” were day-long affairs that stretched out over an entire week. No matter when I turned on the TV, a test match aired. Louise’s stepdad and her brothers Daniel and Anthony did their best to explain the rules.
I have picked up on some of them and I understand when the tension rises, but a lot of times that’s still only because the announcer’s excited voice informs me something has happened, even though the words that come out of his mouth leave me a bit confused.
Saying goodbye to Cape Town is always difficult. You’re leaving the sun and the beach and the sunsets, the seals, the sharks and the history. You’re leaving it all to return to the concrete jungle of New York and to get back to the States you sit on a plane for 20 hours.
That’s all secondary. We’re leaving family and we know it will be another year, or longer, before we see them again. We’re leaving all those aunts and uncles and cousins and Louise’s grandma. Toughest of all, we’re leaving her folks, who make me feel like another son and have to say goodbye, again, to their daughter. We’re leaving her siblings, who truly are the brothers I never had.
It’s damn tough saying goodbye each time.
But I can’t wait to say hello.