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.


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.