Friday, August 15, 2008

Out of Africa, but still at Cape Town International

CAPE TOWN, Aug. 15 — I’m at the end of my visit here, and I’ve technically departed the country already, having cleared passport control. I write as I site at the wi-fi hot-spot in the international terminal at Cape Town International.

Surprise, surprise, my flight to JFK via Dakar, Sengal, is delayed. Scheduled time, in South African time format: 18h00. Now estimated time of departure: 21h15. Could be better, but it could be much worse.

The international terminal is, like so much of Cape Town and the surroundings I have seen, a study in contrasts. Townships with tin-roofed shacks line the main route to the airport, but the government plans to build high rises along the road to hide the crumbling homes from view in time for the 2010 World Cup. Who knows whether they will make it with that goal, along with others in preparation for hosting the world. But I digress.

The terminal itself is gleaming and beautiful, with construction going on all around to make more space, also in preparation for the World Cup. I’m sitting just across the white-tiled concourse from the Out of Africa shop, which carries a lot of tourist-trap items, but some nice local crafts also. Just down the concourse is the sport shops selling Springboks (the national rugby team) gear, and a handful of other shops, including a book shop with a couple shelves labeled “Africa.” Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Solider” plays over the Out of Africa shop’s stereo. It followed “You Can Call Me Al,” Toto’s “Africa” and an assortment of more local, or at least African, music.

From my various perches today, I’ve encountered chatty Americans, also traveling on my delayed flight, a handful of very eager service personnel, most of whose services I’ve declined, save the gentleman who seems to have taken it upon himself to lay out paper towels in the men’s room for each hand washer. I handed him a couple rand as I left the toilets (the men’s room) because it seemed unavoidable and rude not to give him a little something. I think his counterpart in the arrivals hall, before passengers claim their bags and change dollars, euros, pounds, and other currency to rand, is likely to bring in more income — I gave him two American dollars on my way out when I arrived, which is the equivalent of about 15 rand.

The flight is delayed not because of any problem on this end, as far as I understand, but because of weather in New York. My New York travel travails follow me to Africa.

There’s an expression I’ve heard frequently during my brief stay in the Mother City (one of Cape Town’s nicknames), used to explain delays, frustrations, foibles, and the like here: “This is Africa.” It’s often abbreviated TIA. Maybe it’s offensive, maybe it’s too blunt, but it’s said so often, maybe it’s accurate.

New York, in my experience, needs a comparable expression. Capetonians I’ve met seem to handle the blips and cock-ups of everyday life in a major city better than New Yorkers do. Instead of fuming into a rage, as I often do when the subway makes me crazy with its “track work,” Capetonians might shrug their shoulders and say, “This is Africa, it’s a different place,” as one driver told me this week. (He happened to say it in the context of the country’s presumptive future president, Jacob Zuma, now president of the African National Congress, ANC, facing possible criminal conviction but remaining THE contender for the country’s top office, but that’s another story — one to be told on my return to the States.)

So, without further delay (except for my flight delay, which I hope isn’t any longer either), here is a new, or perhaps recycled, expression for New Yorkers, in the hope that they too might shrug off the blips on the radar screen when necessary. “This is New York” ¬— to be abbreviated TINY.

So, I’m going to shrug, and sign off, explaining this flight delay to myself by saying This is New York (or at least its fault), and in the meantime, This is Africa, so enjoy it for a little while longer.

Stay tuned for more, including highlights of my African stomach bug and visits to a game park and Robben Island, upon my return to the States.

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