Alone at the Edge of the World


“My name is Desmond. What is your name?”

My South African cab driver is looking in the rearview mirror towards me in the backseat.

“I’m Jenny.”

“Jenny,” he starts, “can I tell you something? You will come back to Cape Town. It doesn’t matter if it takes years; you will come back. There something magnetic about this place, and you will come back.”

Desmond hands me his card before dropping me off in front of Table Mountain and tells me to call him if I need to be picked up when I’m done. I don’t have the heart to tell him I don’t have a cell phone or that calling him will be an impossible task. “Thanks for the ride,” I say.

It’s funny, really. I had been so nervous getting a cab by myself in Cape Town, having heard so many stories and warnings. Don’t travel alone as a girl. Don’t wander off by yourself. But there are no alternatives; I’m solo in South Africa. But here’s Desmond, my new friend.

I purchase a roundtrip ticket up the mountain and wait in line wearing overly ambitious layers: jeans, boots, sweater, coat. It’s been horrible and gray the last four days; I expected more of the same up here. Instead, I cook under the sun, holding my black jacket in between two crossed arms while I listen to the painful couple behind me talk in the type of German that makes people hate Germans. The man’s got a chinstrap beard and an eyebrow piercing. The woman’s got whatever the female equivalent to that would be. She looks like an aggressive volleyball player and heavy consumer of cheap beer.

“Ma’am, is it just you?”

Some Table Mountain employee is standing in front of me in a Table Mountain shirt.

“Oh, yeah,” I say.

“Just stand against the green,” he says, “for a photograph.”

First offense: Being called ma’am. Second offense: Being forced to stand alone and get a picture taken by myself while the horrible German couple behind me watches on.

I move towards a green wall and stand on green carpet. “Big smile!” he says. I would cringe at the whole ordeal if I actually gave a shit.

We inch towards the entrance and eventually board one of two cable cars bearing the word VISA nestled amongst painted flora and fauna. Seventeen people pile inside. I stand near the edge, facing outward, sandwiched between an elderly couple and a Plexiglas window.

Slowly, the car pulls back and the interior begins to rotate, giving everyone inside a chance to see the views of sprawling Cape Town as we ascend. It moves quickly and suddenly and the man in front of me holds onto the stationary railing until I begin to push into him dangerously. “Let go!” I want to scream, but he’s old and foreign and people don’t yell at grandpas. Still, I imagine a duck pile of tourists and the unfortunate ones spilling out of the open windows.

We quicken our pace, speedily racing up the cliff, defying gravity and our collective weight. The steep fractured walls of Table Mountain come into view and quickly change, the car casting shadows on the felt below.

Within minutes, we’ve already reached the top. I’m the first one out the gates. I don’t have to organize or wait for anyone; that’s the beauty and the tragedy of traveling alone.

My boots clack against the ancient stone and I turn around to see the view.

From above, Cape Town is a basin filled with gray skyscrapers and the terracotta roofs of private residences. A charcoal marine layer lays in wait on the horizon line. Water sluggishly pools in the bay areas, frothing against the shoreline like freshly poured beer. Here I am, standing at the edge of the world, by myself.

I lean against a wall of sorts, something that prevents you from spilling out and over the edge. The surface of the protruding rocks is warm and smoother than I thought it would be, imbued with a slight callousness, like holding the hand of a very old man. You feel the solidity of this place, an ancient density.

To the left, light bounces off of roofs along Camps Bay. That is where the rich people live, huddled in between green mountains. The poor people are sprawled out en masse elsewhere, in shacks that look like the crumpled contents of a recycling bin.

Next to me, a group of young Kiwi boys argue, each of them wearing some variation of the same short shorts.

“It was clear hyperbole, Dave. Concede,” one demands.

These short, simple sentences make me question the entirety of the American education system. All I ever hear on the New York subways during the post-school rush hour is “Damn girl” and shrill, unnecessary “What the fucks?”

“No concession,” Dave rebuts. “There is not anything for which one can concede.”

I feel like I’m in an episode of Flight of the Concords.

There are other kids here, too – many, in fact. Herds of them cluster together, both boys and girls in tidy white and black pullovers with button-up shirts and black tennis shoes.

When I’ve tired of wandering around by myself, as one tends to do, I stand in line to go down, behind a mother and daughter, both of whom spend the better part of thirty minutes loudly slurping on their respective ice cream cones, talking only every five minutes or so, mostly about negotiating how to get every last bit out of the bottom of the cone. It’s funny that we spend all this time meeting people, and talking to people, and dating people, and marrying people, just to end up standing next to someone, not saying anything at all.

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Sixteen Hours to Africa

7:00 a.m. – I eat breakfast, brush my teeth, throw out the trash. My bags are packed, I’ve got my passport, my snacks are accounted for. South Africa, here I come!

9:02 a.m. – After an hour-long train ride to the airport, I take the elevator to the ticketing counters. I’m in a new, unfamiliar terminal. I look a screen displaying arrivals and departures: Flight SA203 11:15 a.m. DELAYED 9:50 p.m. Ohhhhh, really. That’s, like, awesome.

9:25 a.m. – The woman behind the counter passes me a sheet of paper that says something like, “Blah blah blah, flight last night from Johannesburg blah blah medical emergency blah blah blah deepest apologies blah blah blah.” She hands two (rather generous) vouchers for lunch and a snack, $25 and $15, respectively. I tell her I think I’m just going to go home. She tells me to hold onto my receipts. Free cab rides? Yes, please!

10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. – I sit on my couch, get some work done. Per my mother’s suggestion, I go for a run. That’s only after she spoils my good time by telling me just how long it will take for me to get to South Africa, since I hadn’t bothered to look. She Googles the flight while on the phone with me. “Here it is,” she says. “Ten Worst Flights in the World.” We laugh now, but I’ll be crying later.

5:31 p.m. – My cab driver arrives (second one of the day!) and I feel quite posh and luxurious.

6:15 p.m. – Because my cab driver is a badass, we make it to the airport in record time: 45 minutes during rush hour. Red lights were run, side streets were taken.

7:10 p.m. – Though I feel like I’m taking advantage, I use my lunch voucher for a dinner snack: a water, crudités sampling platter, and cut up fruit all for the bargain price of $14.99. God, I love spending other people’s money.

9:45 p.m. – There appears to be no sign of our plane, nor any announcements regarding when it will magically appear.

10:10 p.m. – More of the same. The people across from me start bitching about South African Airways, sharing horror stories about lost luggage and extreme flight delays. I am unfortunately dragged into a conversation about how one woman got on a plane after the previous riders had disembarked and, apparently, the turbulence had been so bad for them, she could see head marks or blood or something on the ceiling. Thanks, lady. That’s, like, just what I want to hear before I get on a 15 hour flight over the Atlantic Ocean and across the massive continent of Africa.

10:25 p.m. – Our missing plane arrives and the poor bastards on it get off, not soon enough, it seems. Me and my annoyed comrades have pieced together the story in our hours together: at some point during this plane’s initial journey from Johannesburg to New York yesterday, someone had to go and have a real bad time of it (medical emergency) and they turned back, only to have to wait some hours after for the crew to rest. Then they had to get back on and start all over again. No f’ing thank you.

11:15 p.m. – I’m seated somewhere far far in the back of this massive plane, next to a young boy who later tells me he’s heading to Africa to help poor people. He seems to like me in the beginning, until about hour 8 when I start getting up to pee a lot.

11:18 p.m. – The pilot comes on and makes one of about twenty-two lengthy, ingratiating announcements about how they’re terribly sorry about the flight being delayed half a day, how we’re all in this together, how he hopes we focus on the next 15 hours of “hos-pee-tal-ah-teeeee” we’re about to receive. He sounds like my mom’s friend, John Spass from Durban, circa 1989.

12:10 a.m. – The plane is up and away and the flight attendants are walking around starting the “midnight dinner service” our pilot has joked about. “Excuse me, you ordered a special dinner, yes?” She places in front of me what must be the worst decision I have ever made, ranking up there with about five of the assholes I dated in 2011. I am nearly brought to tears. There, on my plastic tray table in the downward position, is a platter of vegetables: an entrée portion of cut up vegetables, a side portion of the same cut up vegetables, a salad with lettuce and three slices of tomato, and a saltine cracker.

12:12 a.m. – I beg the flight attendant for the chicken.

12:23 a.m. – After making sure everyone has their first, second, or third choice, my flight attendant (who is none too happy about this) hands me a tin full of hot chicken and rice with greasy potatoes. Oh, sweet sustenance, fortify me for this journey.

12:41 a.m. – I fall asleep watching Snow White and the Huntsman for the second time. All I’ve garnered from both viewings is that Charlize Theron plays a massive bitch that takes whole milk baths, white and thick as Elmer’s glue.

12:42 a.m. onward – Time becomes a slippery, irrelevant thing. I will eventually wake up some eight hours later with an unfortunate amount of time left, something to the tune of seven hours. I alternate between feeling extremely uncomfortable and extremely claustrophobic. Outside, it’s daylight, but everyone keeps their shades drawn, choosing instead to ride out the duration of this journey in a darkened tube. My feet swell, my mouth rids itself of any bothersome moisture, my lips chap. When it’s about 10 a.m. my body time, my head begins to throb with the dulled ache of a caffeine addict. It doesn’t get any worse, I swear to God.

 

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