Monday, March 16, 2009

Cape Town (finale)

Friends: If the Argus had been held this past Sunday rather than a week ago, it would have enjoyed such perfect conditions it would have been heralded as the most idyllic bicycling event in the world. The praise would have been unrestrained glorifying its incomparably beautiful route. Those riding the Argus could have savored every one of its 69 miles from its start in the heart of Cape Town, then circling around Table Mountain and going for miles and miles along the coast past exquisite beaches and along rugged, spectacular cliff sides. It would have given all South Africans another opportunity to gloat over the greatness of their country.

Riders would have been so energized by the sunny, cool conditions there would have been a record number of personal best times, rather than a record for the fewest. The times of all finishers were published in Friday's "Cape Argus," the newspaper that sponsors the event. They filled 22 over-sized pages, six columns to the page. One page listed the 1,000 top finishers and the rest listed the times of the finishers alphabetically along with their age and sex and overall place. Among them were the Damon brothers, Kyle and Matt, aged 40 and 38, with a time of 6 hours 40 minutes and 28 seconds on their tandem, placing 22,558. The headline on the story read, "Cycling times gone with the wind." Only 111 cyclists came in under 3 hours, compared to 1,781 last year. The number of those finishing under four hours was 4,467, down from 12,844 in 2008. The wildest statistic of all, and one that will be hard to beat, was only two of the 73 start groups managed to avoid a crash in the first 100 meters.

Yesterday's glorious weather kept me on my bike most of the day meandering about Cape Town and beyond seeking out a few sites I had yet to visit and returning to some of my favorites. After climbing to the top of Table Mountain a few days ago, I haven't been able to stay off it, biking along the ridge where the cable car and various trails to its summit start. I finally biked up to the magisterial Rhodes Monument on a shoulder of the mountain just above Cape Town University. A fairly modest-sized bust of the man who owned the largest gold and diamond mines in the country and served as one of South Africa's first prime ministers resides under a huge pavilion garnished with pillars and guarded by several pairs of lions on pedestals along the walkway below it. Chiseled into the wall over his bust is the inscription, "To the spirit and life work of Cecil John Rhodes who loved and served South Africa. 1853-1902."

Love for country is a strong attribute among South Africans. Rhodes came to South Africa from England as a 17-year. He was devoted to South Africa and also the English Empire. It was his goal to build a railway from Cairo to Cape Town through English territory all the way. If he had lived longer, this might have been achieved and Paul Theroux would have had another train ride to write about and travelers would have it much easier traveling the length of the continent. Rhodes was successful in establishing British control beyond South Africa, including Zimbabwe. Up until 1980 it bore his name--Rhodesia. His name now is best known outside of South Africa for the Rhodes scholarships to Oxford, funded by his fortune.

An outdoor cafe, just a short stroll beyond the monument, is a popular place for Sunday brunch. From the monument I descended a couple miles to Main Road, and then over to Newlands Stadium, where I watched Cape Town's professional rugby team, the Stormers, wallop the Johannesburg Lions 56-18 the evening before. It was a big win for the Stormers, as they were struggling and were about to embark on a three-week trip to Australia. The 14 team professional league consists of five teams from South Africa, four from Australia and five from New Zealand.

The 40,000 seat double-decked stadium was packed. I had my choice of a 95 rand reserved seat or a 40 rand standing section seat. Those of us standing were relegated to one of the end zones. It was perfectly adequate for me. It was an enthusiastic, blue-flag waving crowd, but well-behaved. The match started at five and was completed before seven, well before dark, so I could have a safe five-mile bike ride home. There were many couples and children accompanying parents. The stadium was in a residential area. The sidewalks leading to the stadium were lined with vendors with barbecues selling all manner of sausages. My first impression was that the game was a controlled brawl until I began to see the sense and order to it. Someone compared it to American football, saying that American football is a game designed by gentlemen played by savages, while rugby is a game designed by savages played by gentlemen. Rare is it for a fight to break out or for a player to dispute a referee.

Rugby is the favorite South African sport and a great national passion. One of the themes of Riaan Manser's book "Around Africa on My Bicycle" was his quest to find a television to watch a match. That tied in with his great national pride. He was very proud to be a South African and proud to bring glory to his country for being the first person to bicycle the perimeter of Africa. When he returned to South Africa in 2005 after being out of the country for two years on his ride through the 32 other countries that form the perimeter of the continent, he was struck more than ever by what a "land of milk and honey" it was in comparison to the rest of Africa. But his eyes were also opened to its great economic disparity. He recognized "discontent and even hostility" from those less well off. He doesn't dwell on it much, as he is too much of a patriot to more than passingly criticize his homeland.

He was attacked and preyed upon in quite a few countries and was lucky to escape with his life on a couple of occasions. But he was mostly treated well and had more mechanical difficulties than difficulties with people. He was a big guy and was continually breaking spokes on his rear wheel, frequently having to hitch hike to a bike shop to get more spokes or a new wheel. He never thought, nor did anyone give him the advice, to take some of the load off his rear wheel by getting front panniers, or upgrading from a 36 spoke wheel to one with 48 spokes as I did long ago. He was a first time bike tourer who only bought his panniers the day before he left and never test rode his bike with a load. He spent more time trying to raise money from sponsors, before and during the trip, than in adequately researching what it took to tour. Still, he had an incredible adventure, a lot of which he brought upon by his inexperience.

He passed through one area in South Africa notorious for attacks on tourists, but is told that the attackers aren't locals, but are illegal immigrants from neighboring countries where they have it much worse than even the poor of South Africa. That is one excuse for the high crime rate here, but not entirely viable. The South African poor don't welcome the poor from other countries coming in and vying for work, making it difficult for outsiders to melt into the country. The tribal people of South Africa are not hesitant to turn violent on rival tribes. There is frequent vigilante justice, locals killing someone who has raped or killed before the official authorities can get to them. This propensity to violence can be unleashed on anyone.

There are many South Africans simmering and seething over how little they have and how much others have in this country. Robbery is such an accepted part of life it is referred to as a "redistribution of wealth program." There are many desperate and dangerous people that can strike out at any time. One has to continually be vigilant unlike anywhere else I have traveled. I've been in places much poorer than South Africa--Bolivia, Laos, India, Cuba and elsewhere--but there was just a fraction of the level of crime. It's obviously extreme when a supermarket has to have a security guard frisking everyone entering a store to make sure they don't have a weapon, and frisking everyone who leaves to make sure they haven't shoplifted anything, even though there are security guards standing in every aisle making sure people don't steal or gobble down food on the spot. There is a lot of latent hostility in this country, some a residue of apartheid and some relating to the economic disparity.

South Africa is the only place I've been that my bicycle didn't automatically earn me favor and goodwill and defuse any ill will my skin color or nationality might otherwise ignite. Being a bicyclist didn't matter at all. I was still someone to prey upon. The bike didn't melt frowns or hardened looks as it has everywhere else. I was white and a "have" and that was all that mattered to many. I'd been warned before I came that this was a dangerous place. I'd heard that about other places I've traveled, but being on a bike invariably won over all I encountered. In some countries I have been regarded as extremely poor to be traveling by bicycle, not even able to afford a bus ticket. It took me awhile to fully realize that the magic of the bike did not apply to South Africa. Thinking back on my first week or so in the country, I was fortunate not to have been victimized any sooner than I was. For once all the warnings I was given were not without merit. If anything, people were restrained in their warnings, not wishing to overly alarm me as to how careful I ought to be.

Peru was a very dangerous place when I biked its length in 1989. Its the only other place I have been robbed, though I was separated from my bike when I was robbed there. It happened on my second day in Peru, forcing me to continually look over my shoulder for the month I was there. I didn't realize how much tension I was under until I crossed into Chile and could relax. It was much more of a relief than I could have imagined. I don't think I will feel a similar sensation when I board my plane home tomorrow, as I haven't been as tense here as I was there, even though this is a much more dangerous place. There's not only the danger here that someone will rob you, but also that they will do you personal harm. That danger has been counterbalanced by the many, many overwhelmingly kind and generous people I have met who have been genuinely concerned about my well-being and gone out of their way to be nice. They love their country and wanted to make my experience as positive as they could. When I've been asked if I've had any problems, it is always with a wariness, hoping that I haven't had any, but knowing that I most likely have. Any could top my bad experience with ones of their own, but they generally resist. All hope things will get better, but many fear they won't.

Listening to the radio at night I hear callers, black and white, lamenting the racial divide and wondering if they want to remain in the country. "I don't feel as if I belong here," one said. Another lamented, " How long are we going to have to live with this racism?" A prominent South African writer and friend of Mandela wrote him an open eight-page letter in the December issue of "Harper's." He said he was sorry, but he would have to advise any young person who wanted a future to leave South Africa. The newspapers have ads offering assistance in immigrating to Canada or Australia or the UK. People seem equally divided on wanting to leave out of fear and for moral reasons.

I don't know what I would do if I lived here. This is an extremely beautiful and prosperous and developed country with many exceptional people who truly believe in the country and who want to make it as good as they can. But there is a horribly wide chasm between those who are doing well and those who aren't. Anyone with a conscience has to be troubled by the huge percentage of the population that live in extreme squalor in shanty towns just a few miles from those who live like kings. And anyone with a conscience ought to have concern, too, about how long the deprived can tolerate such conditions.

This has been a most memorable and fulfilling trip with more challenges than most. I have seen and learned a lot. I have many people to thank for making it such an exceptional experience, foremost Ian here in Cape Town as well as his business partner Charlie and of course Mark and Nicky in Matatiele and countless others who lent me their support along the way--the woman at the airport who stored my bike box in her closet, the young man who offered me a ride to Pretoria, the campground owner who worked on my bike and didn't charge me for camping, the various people who stopped to give me cold drinks, the motorcyclist who gave me 200 rand and on and on. I can understand why so many South Africans take such great pride in their country and their countrymen.

Later, George


T.C. O'Rourke said...

Brilliant, George.

listener1755 said...

1 small correction: there are only 4 Aus teams in the Super 14 and 5 NZ teams(1 of which beat my beloved Bulls for the 1st time this year last night in Palmerston North,NZ - boo-hoo; well done Highlanders!) Excellent blog, George! Wim, NEW ALBANY,Ohio.

Gillian said...

As a Scot living in Johannesburg South Africa, I've kept close tabs your your SA tour. Glad you enjoyed the control.

Well done.

where you off to now?

Mel said...

Hi George,

I really enjoyed reading your blog. In the course of living and vacationing in SA I have been to several of the areas you visited.

Sounded like a great experience, sans the robbery. I never experienced any voilent crimes, but had 3 burgleries in 1989 when I was living there.

Hey, have you posted any photos of your trip? Would love to check them out.