It has been awhile (sorry!) but it’s time to pick up the thread on my adventures in South Africa! My last trip post saw me soaking wet in the streets of Johannesburg while trying (and failing) to make a birthday call to one of my sisters. Fortunately, that evening wasn’t a total disaster. I dragged myself to dinner at a new place and was rewarded with my first decent restaurant service since I left the U.S. Plus, I had a strawberry daiquiri to mellow out followed by a hot chocolate to warm up, so I was in a good place. More importantly, the whole phone call experience shattered once and for all my misconceptions that I had about the people in Johannesburg. In my entire experience, contrary to what I had been told to expect, no one had tried to rob or mug me or take advantage of me in any way. On the contrary, all of the people with whom I had spoken had gone out of their way to help me–a soaking wet, questionable-looking stranger.
My outlook continued to improve the next day. I met up with a friend who lived just outside the city. We had met in Australia four years before and had kept in touch via Facebook; now, we were able to hang out in person. It was a great morning and afternoon spent laughing, discussing our respective cities, and just catching up in general. After we parted, I spent the rest of that glorious afternoon doing nothing but reading and watching the handful of channels received on my room’s satellite TV. It was the perfect, relaxing last day in Johannesburg.
The next morning, I woke up early to shower and pack so that I could meet my taxi to the airport and catch my 7:35AM flight to Cape Town. I was proud of myself for being ready to meet the taxi at 6:00AM on the dot, but my pride turned into concern when my taxi didn’t show up. At 6:10AM, I hiked to the Main Road to try to catch another taxi, but none were heading to the airport. At 6:20AM, I decided to try my luck heading in the opposite direction, but nary a taxi passed by. I was getting sweaty and desperate. Finally, at 6:30AM, I saw my original taxi pass me, so I ran back to my guest house to catch it. I was seething quiet stress during the entire 30-minute ride to the airport, keeping my fingers crossed that the whole check-in-40-minutes-before-departure rule was more hortatory than hard-and-fast.
When we finally pulled up to the airport, I pulled on my backpack by only one handle, grabbed my carry-ons, and SPRINTED. I must have been quite a sight, running through the airport weighted down by 20 kilos of luggage, but I didn’t care. I just kept running, stopping only to ask for directions between pants and to gasp out apologies and excuse-me’s as I tried to avoid trampling my fellow passengers. At long last (of course, my check-in area was as far from my entrance point as possible, including up some stairs), I reached the counter, ten minutes past the check-in deadline and 30 minutes before take-off.
“My taxi came very late,” I choked out while simultaneously perspiring profusely. “Is it still possible for me to make my flight? It’s at 7:35.” Fortunately, I had all of the appropriate paperwork and forms of ID in easy reach, so the woman behind the counter gave me the answer that I wanted to hear: Yes, I could catch my flight, but I needed to hustle my way through security and cut the line if necessary. I thanked the woman and scurried off. However, when I got to the security line, my sense of common decency kicked in and just wouldn’t let me cut the line. Most of the people ahead of me moved quickly, but the two groups of people directly in front of me were holding things up. First was a family of four including two toddlers; behind them were two seemingly college-aged guys, but one of them was hopping through security on crutches. I forced myself to slow my roll and wait for all of them to get screened before sailing through myself and then breaking into another sprint towards my gate, dodging people as I literally pounded down a moving sidewalk. Miracle of miracles, I got to the gate at the tail-end of the boarding. Ah, the sweet smell of success!
My satisfaction was short-lived. Even though the aisle seat in our row was open, the woman next to me insisted on remaining in her middle seat, spreading her stuff everywhere and continually jostling me awake despite my attempts to snuggle as close to the window as possible. When we arrived to Cape Town, I realized that I didn’t remember the address of my hostel. By the time I was able to look it up, everyone else on the flight had come, picked up their checked luggage, and left. I wasn’t that concerned because I figured that that I could just pick up my bag quickly and go. I walked over to the carousel and there was only one bag left, now being carried away to a storage area by the baggage handlers. Unfortunately, it wasn’t my bag. Sad trombone. After making some inquiries, my suspicions were confirmed: While I had made the flight, my bag had not. The customer service agent was very kind, though, and promised to keep me posted on when I would receive my bag.
After making it to my hostel, I proceeded to get sorted. I called my sister and wished her a happy belated birthday despite the fact that she laughed a little too heartily at the tale of my escapades in trying to call on her actual birthday. I called the owner of my guest house in Johannesburg and let her know about my tardy airport transfer and ensuing luggage hiccups. She was very kind and professional, insisting on giving me a full refund for the transfer and offering me reimbursement for all of the costs that I incurred in respect of my delayed luggage; I did eventually get my luggage back later that evening, after many calls to the airport, so, fortunately, I didn’t have any lost luggage costs to claim.
The biggest part of my day, though, was spent trying to procure a ticket to Robben Island. I had had warning enough that I needed to book in advance, and I had totally meant to do so. However, with everything going on with my travels plus spotty internet access thus far during my trip, I had completely forgotten. I tried calling the Robben Island museum, but I was advised that showing up in person would be the best strategy. Thus, I made my way to the V&A Waterfront shortly before that afternoon’s ferry and tried to charm my way onto the boat. No such luck. Tickets were sold out until the day after I left, and, in the meantime, only half the ferry times were still available as many of the Robben Island workers were on strike. The latter fact explained the sign waving, chanting, and singing in front of the museum as I had entered. At first, I had assumed that the protesting was somehow related to the Occupy Wall Street movement–ethnocentrism fail.
In any event, I didn’t give up. I asked when I could check again for tickets and was told that I should call the following morning. In the interim, I started doing online and guidebook research to see whether there were any tour companies that included an actual landing on, and tour of, Robben Island as part of their tours. I even decided to try out for the first time the concierge service that came with my credit card. Long story short, the customer service representatives with whom I spoke were kind but unhelpful. The next morning, I called the Robben Island museum again, as directed, but there were still no tickets. I decided to give it one last go and simply show up for an afternoon departure. I got to the ferry terminal, stood in line (yet again), got to the front, and asked if there were any cancellations.
Nothing. I sighed, accepted defeat, and took a seat in order to rest, plan my next move, and jot down a few sentences in my journal for a future blog post. Just as I was putting my things away and getting ready to head back to my hostel, the woman from behind the counter came to find me–hallelujah, some seats had opened up! Elated and thankful, I grabbed my ticket and boarded the ferry (quickly, before any of the museum employees could change their minds).
While I was initially bummed out about not being able to sit on the top level of the ferry in the open air, I ended up appreciating my indoor location as the ride over to the island was quite bumpy. Upon arrival, the hordes of tourists on the ferry were distributed onto various buses, and we took off on our respective tours. From the house in which Robert Sobukwe (one of South Africa’s most important anti-apartheid activists) spent almost a decade in solitary confinement to the lime quarry in which Nelson Mandela and others performed hard labor (and suffered damage to their eyes from the sunlight reflected off of the lime), the island’s sights inspired deep reflection.
The most moving part of the tour was the portion led by a former Robben Island prisoner. It was truly shocking to me that someone who had spent decades of his life unjustly imprisoned could speak so calmly about not wanting revenge but, rather, reconciliation. How could someone demonstrate such forgiveness? I still don’t know, but, as a Christian, I find that this issue of forgiveness, in this context, still nags at me. Do I have this capacity for forgiveness? Do I want to have this capacity? If not, why not–shouldn’t I WANT to strive to reach this ideal? Honestly, I am at a loss.
The tour was over all too quickly, and the buses quickly shepherded all of us back to the dock so that we wouldn’t miss the ferry back to Cape Town. I decided to fight to snag a seat on the upper level of the ferry this time and just barely eked my way past the gatekeeper. The return trip was even more bouncy than the ride out, with the ferry rolling and bobbing in the waves. On the plus side, I got some great shots of Robben Island’s resident seals as we pulled out and of Cape Town’s skyline as we neared the end of the ride. On the awkward side, the movement of the ferry was so strong that I was jostled quite a bit, at one point being flung into the lap of the unsuspecting gentleman sitting next to me. Fortunately, he was very understanding about the whole situation, so I only had to deal with my own personal mortification. In the end, I was thrilled that my patience and persistence had paid off in getting me onto the ferry (especially since I saw that many others had been turned away) and that my visit to Robben Island had been well worth all of my efforts. Not bad for my first full day in Cape Town.