Jan 30, 2007

Glimpse

I.
Cape Town has a special vibe to it. Alive, like New York, which is what I think most connects the two places for me. I miss New York sometimes—the strength of the hustle, the rawness of the noises, the assault on the senses. But Cape Town has that too, the southern-hemisphere version—colours brighter, streets dirtier, smells more volatile.


Nothing about Cape Town is phoney when you get below the surface. Phonies don't last here. They find the reality, the duality of it too in-your-face and leave to Australia or Europe.

Long Street is full of hustle come midnight on a weekend. The tourists flock and the smell of exploitation is thick and uncomfortable. We pay 15 rand each and walk through the big, black-metal doors at Mama Africa. Abakhaya, a boisterous marimba band from Khayelitsha, is mid-set as we find seats at the long, candle-lit bar. Coke bottles hang from the ceiling in a grandiose chandelier, casting reflective light-shadows across the walls.

Someone lights a cigarette and the strong smell of rich, earthy tobacco rises around us.
The space between us and the band has suddenly been filled with foreigners – German, Dutch, British, American – all come to Cape Town to dance away their guilt, to revel in the magic of this exotic city. But not too much. Not really. (Not at all.)

It isn’t long before we realize that the only black people in the place are serving food, music and sex. A young woman, quietly beautiful, is seated at the far end of the bar. Her skin is soft and taut across her cheeks. Her lips are red with dark lipstick and her eyes smoky and warm. She is absent, mostly, except when the money makes her laugh, forces her to lift her drink to her lips and turn her face upwards towards his, lusty and flush with alcohol. I can't help but stare. His eyes are drooping, lids closing, and I pray he will be too drunk by the end of the night to follow through. That hopefully she can just take her money and go back to her home in Crossroads or Langa or Gugulethu. That tonight she can hold her children to her breasts without the dirty reminder of white skin on hers, stealing life, conquering soul.

II.
A taxi comes screeching around us. It lurches up onto the shoulder and then, too fast for the sounds and images to meet, it smashes, metal on metal, into a street-light. We hear glass shatter above us and then it crashes like an explosion. Andrew screeches to a stop, head in hands, panicking. The old man in the front seat is bleeding, the windshield broken and shattered from the impact of his skull.

The taxi was headed for Khayelitsha, behind the mountain, out of the way of the sun and traffic. "We come to town to work," they say, "bring food and money home to our families." And before any ambulance, before the police arrive, they are gone. Scratched and bleeding, they are herded into another taxi and shipped away, limping.


III.
The house lies about a kilometer in from the main road. We park the car and John and Cobra lead us, barefoot, through tall grasses and small villages towards his property. The gate is closed to keep village children off his plantation, out of the plants growing tall in rich Eastern Cape soil. We left early that morning for Mdumbi. John and Cobra lifted the VW Golf in the car park out of our way and hopped in the backseat, coming along as guides, translators. They do the bargaining and business deals in rolling, rhythmic Xhosa, and we hand over the cash. Fifty rand here, thirty there, and another fifteen for that right there in the young boy’s dirty hands.

Rasta Dave greets us as we approach his garden. A pot simmers on nearby coals and Dave, John and Cobra exchange greetings in quiet Xhosa. He invites us inside. A dirty mattress is turned up against the far wall. John picks up a hand-made guitar from the floor and begins pecking at its few remaining strings, making a lovely melody that resonates in the small room. Hanging above us, on the far wall, is the flag of the old South Africa, during apartheid. Underneath it lie strewn pieces of an old motorbike, likely driven out here and too damaged by the bombed out pothole roads to make it back.

The house is rugged and dirty. I take pictures quietly as smoke fills the room and, just as smoothly as we came in, we are gone, trekking with heavy breath to the car and bumping along back to the tent.

IV.
We left Cape Town three days ago and since then have been driving through the crags and mountains of this rugged coastline. The hills are lush and green and rolling as ocean waves, ebbing and flowing gently before us. Hogsback Mountain stands tall and lush over the valleys of the Eastern Cape. In her shadows lie small villages, mud huts and gravel roads, cattle, goats and children.

This Africa is full up with beauty and peace—bumblebees on mountain lilies, Samango monkeys in the trees and the soft hum of cicadas in tall pines. There is no bush war in this Africa, no child soldiers missioning through the bush, no famine, no disease. This Africa is full of lush green and sunlight.
We walk barefoot along mountain cliffs, admiring the view. Out over the wide landscape villages spot the countryside, but we cannot see inside their doors, cannot see hunger from 1200 metres above sea level.