Friends: Four days in South Africa and I've hardly met a person, at least among the whites, who hasn't told me to be careful or to "watch yourself." Several have offered to guard my bike when I've gone into a grocery store, because "someone is liable to snatch it," or "someone might be naughty."
When I asked the two black women at the Cape Town airport information desk how to bike out of the airport towards the coast, they told me the only way was on the national highway and that bicycles weren't allowed on it. Looking at the map taped to their counter I noticed a lesser road paralleling the national highway and asked about it. "No, no, you don't want to take that road," they said. "It goes through the neighborhoods." They knew no more explanation was necessary, nor did I ask for one.
I didn't think I had reason to fear riding a major thoroughfare through the "neighborhoods," especially at nine in the bright light of early morning, so I choose to ignore their advice. There wasn't much traffic on the four-lane highways through the shanty-towns, nor a great many people out and about. As I slowed for a traffic light, Known as "robots" here, an occasional pedestrian greeted me with a respectful "Hello Sir." I felt no cause for alarm. It might have been too early for the dangerous sorts to be up and about.
I suspected the women at the information desk were more concerned about protecting me from a sordid first impression of their country than for my safety. For ten miles or so I biked past a huge sprawl of one-room, mostly rusty, corrugated tin shacks, snuggled wall-to-wall with only narrow paths between them. Every couple of blocks I passed a water spigot with a line of people waiting their turn to fill an assortment of plastic buckets. About the only thing that made it less appalling than the slums of Bombay were occasional clusters of standard issue bright blue porta potties. It was unsettling to imagine the lives of the tens of thousands of people living in such cramped conditions without electricity or indoor plumbing.
It has been hard to shake the image of such squalor, especially in contrast to the palatial white neighborhoods, mostly fenced in, often with barbed wire. Of the 50 million inhabitants of this country, only five million are white. They have it well off, but they know their wealth is resented. In the last days of apartheid, hardly a white went to sleep at night without the fear of being stabbed in the night. The fear of those days lingers. Though the blacks were welcoming through the neighborhoods, recognizing me as visitor, out in the countryside, when I pass a black along the road, hardly a one speaks, just looking right pass me, even when I greet them with a hello. I am accustomed to brightening people's faces with delight at the site of my overloaded bicycle. Here they remain passive, if not antagonistic. I am more disdained, than welcomed.
When I asked the white owner of a small grocery store in a small town if there was a town park where I might go eat my lunch, he advised me that it was not a safe place. The most prominent sign in the towns I pass through is directions to the police department. Most of the ATM machines have shelters built around them for privacy to prevent ne'er-do-wells from spying on one's transaction, getting a pin number or seeing how much one might have withdrawn.
Reading the newspapers further emphasizes that this is a very unsettled country marked by violent behavior of an extreme, aberrant sort. There were side-by-side stories on page two in the Port Elizabeth Herald of youths gone amok. One was of five boys aged ten to 14 who sodomized and murdered a 19-month old. The other was of four 14-year olds who raped a nine year old boy. On the next page a headline read "Bouncer turns himself in after club death." Another story told of a father still in distress over the disappearance of his 18-year old daughter three years ago, fearing she'd been abducted and forced into prostitution. None of these were sensationalized "National Enquirer" attention-grabbing stories, just simple straight reporting. The same with a story about a worker suing his boss for calling him a "baboon."
The only positive news in the entire paper was the promise of "A New Dawn for Africa" with Obama in the White House. Among the many stories on Obama spread over three pages was one quoting an astrologer from Burma predicting Obama would win another term and survive three attempts on his life, though he couldn't be certain without reading Obama's palm.
As always, it is fascinating to immerse myself in a new country, learning its history and its character. Its like having an affair, initially being enamored by its quirks and unique qualities. First impressions don't always hold true. It does seem that the further I get from the big city of Cape Town and out into rural South Africa, the less alarmed people seem. The biking has been first-rate with excellent roads and not much traffic. I followed the coast for over 50 miles to Hermanus, one of the premier whale-watching spots in the world, though not this time of the year. The town has a large bay with a sandy bottom that the whales seem to thrive upon. There are enough penguins in the vicinity to warrant a penguin road sign.
Besides the incessant warnings to be careful, the only other disagreeable aspect of my trip so far has been the slight difficulty of wild camping, as barbed wire fences line most of the roads. Twice I have had to camp beside a fence less than 30 feet from the road, just barely sheltered from sight by bushes and a dip in the road. One night I was able to go off on a dirt road and find a break in the fence and disappear into a cluster of trees. The other negative has been the lack of Internet in libraries. The only library I have come upon with the Internet was in the larger town of Strand, though one had to pay for it. As of January first, Internet use required the purchase of a 50 rand card. At ten rands to the dollar, that wasn't totally unreasonable, but since it was on my first day in South Africa, Internet was not of great urgency.
I am still conditioning my skin to the sun and my body to the 80-degree heat, holding me to an average of 70 miles a day so far. After I turned inland from Hermanus the countryside has turned very arid. With prominent ridges towering in the distance it is similar to the Basin and Range region of southern Nevada. My legs are still finding themselves, weary from all the climbing over the hills and a handful of named passes. There were a few clearings off the road on a pass late yesterday afternoon that I could have camped at, but signs warning not to feed the baboons made me wary. When I saw one the next morning, about the size of a man, lumbering along the road, I wouldn't want to have tangled with him.
At times I have to remind myself I'm in South Africa and not Australia. All the men in shorts and the ubiquity of meat pies and sausage rolls and biking on the left-hand side of the road hearken me back to the Land Down Under. But it was rare to see an aborigine in Australia, while blacks are a common site here.