South African Lemons

It’s my last day. Erin asks me what I want to do before my flight and lists off some sights. “Frankschhoek,” I say. “I could see Franschhoek.” The weather outside is gray and miserable, and between the two of us, we’ve seen enough wineries and tasted enough swill to hold us over until Armageddon. Still, I don’t want to stay in the hotel. Anything but staying in one place for the whole day before I stay in place for the whole flight back to the USA, caged like a circus animal.

Erin looks just as pained at the response as I do at my request. “We can do that, yeah,” she says, the epitome of an agreeable host. I’m sure the both of us would rather sit in the corner rocking back and forth like two silent lunatics. It’s been a long week.

We meet at 10:30 on a sidewalk in Stellenbosch until the car comes round. Erin just has to drop of laundry at a friend’s house. Apparently the washing service at the hotel didn’t so much wash her clothes as fluff and fold them, sans soap and water. “It all still smelled like campfire smoke,” Erin tells me. Fanny said she could borrow her washing machine.

Fanny’s house is on the collegiate part of town, near the university. Stellenbosch reminds me very much of Santa Barbara in that way, only a few hundred years older. On one side, it’s bleachy white and green and lush, a wine drinker’s utopia. On the other, it’s boozing, sexing, and partying. All under one beautiful roof.

Erin points at the lot opposite of Fanny’s house. It’s empty and weed-ridden. The only clues that there might have been anything there are the walkways that snake into the grass, leading nowhere. Erin tells me that the government bulldozed the houses because they had been empty and abandoned and then some Nigerians started squatting there.

Three dogs greet us at a yellow gate: one small, one medium, one large. As it turns out, the puppy, which Fanny and her boyfriend adopted two weeks ago, was saved from a truck transporting stolen dogs from Cape Town to a country north of here. They steal the puppies from South Africa for dogfights, using them to bait the older, bigger dogs. They throw them into the ring before the fights and the real fighter dogs rip them to pieces, at which point they’re amped and blood thirsty for the real thing.

I watch him run away down the side of the house, light as a leaf on a breeze.

Africa is a feral, wicked place. A whole history of mistrust and bad blood sits just beneath the surface, waiting for the precise moment of vindication, as though the entire continent just needs one excuse to completely incinerate. It is a feeling I get walking through the aisles of the local supermarket in Stellenbosch. The people are jittery and watchful, even when purchasing their shrink-wrapped meats, their boxes of biscuits.

Still, I could be wrong. But I very much want to go back and read Heart of Darkness to validate my suspicions, my instinctual weariness of this place.

Erin walks towards the back of the house and Fanny lets us in through a screen door, leading us through a washroom filled with drying clothing and into a damp living room with very high ceilings and walls covered in art: a series of sketched pistols, a few real pistols, geometric butterflies.

Fanny gets us tea. Rooibos.

Tom comes in. That’s Fanny’s boyfriend. He’s an artist and a musician and he’s got graying hair and a ruddy complexion. Fanny comes back with four mugs tea and a side of milk. Tom starts a fire. Erin makes a comment in Afrikaans about the fire being worthless, as it smolders without burning.

So far, I like South Africans. They’re strange people, comedic realists. If life hands you lemons, you bite down hard on the rind and let your tongue steep in its bitterness, then you make a joke about it. This is perhaps what happens when your ancestors decide to leave the western comforts of Europe and make the trek all the way down to the edge of civilization, realizing that this is the end of the road and you’d be mad to turn back. You exist for hundreds of years in what is essentially a massive island, separated from the world, accountable to no one.

We drink our tea, wash Erin’s clothes, have a good laugh and listen to music. When it’s time to leave, Fanny walks us around the side, petting the top of the medium sized dog’s head as we walk. This one, she says, had been stabbed in the head not too long ago during what South Africans call a “home invasion.” I think they use the phrase “home invasion” because it takes into account a greater life threatening danger than just your run-of-the-mill robbery. In a robbery, your TV is getting stolen, your pearls get snagged. In a “home invasion,” you might get raped.

Luckily for Fanny, she wasn’t home when it happened, but her neighbors called her that day. “Hey, Fanny. Sorry, but your dog is wandering around the street with a knife in its head.” Erin tells me they usually just toss the dogs poisoned sausages.

“To kill or to sedate,” I ask, imagining that comedic scene in Something About Mary with the mutt and the giant tabs of Oxycontin.

“Oh, to kill,” she says, with a frankness that everyone here seems obligated to possess, a survival tactic for acceptance of the status quo.