Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Welcome to Cape Town

CAPE TOWN, Aug. 6 — After more than 10,000 miles and more than 48 hours of traveling, including a brief overnight stop in New York to shower, sleep, and repack, and after risking my luggage for my own stupidity, I arrived in Cape Town on Monday afternoon.

First impressions are telling, unfair, and subject to change, but they're at least a starting point, so here are a few.

Cape Town International Airport is surprisingly small for a city of about 3.5 million people. The airport is growing, with major construction ongoing now in anticipation of the 2010 World Cup and crowds the tournament will draw to the city and the rest of South Africa. For now, however, the limited capacity means that our Delta flight landed at a distant edge of the runway, and shuttle buses carried us to the terminal. Passport control and customs were relatively empty and moved quickly.

In my haste to get out of the airport and to Observatory, the neighborhood where my girlfriend has been living since June, I forgot to change my American dollars, and I jumped in a cab without any South African rand. Before the driver pulled away, I remembered I needed cash, and I asked him to wait, creating the first of what might be many traveler's dilemmas on my first African trip.

My bags, save my carry on with my laptop and most important essentials, were already in the back of the station wagon cab, but I needed cash before I could leave the airport. So, choose your own adventure: you can either leave your bags with the driver, hoping he won't drive off, leaving you will no clothes and only the bare essentials for two weeks in Cape Town, OR you can rudely ask the driver to open the trunk, drag the bags out and back into the terminal, and find the currency exchange.

I stupidly but politely opted for the former, almost pleading the with driver, whom my instincts said were trustworthy (but those instincts have failed me before), to stay and wait for me, as I raced back into the terminal for cash. I even asked him where the currency exchange was. "The bank," he replied. Of course. The bank. I should have known.

He could sense my nervous, I'm sure, and as I headed back to the terminal, glancing over my shoulder every few seconds, praying he wasn't racing out of the airport taxi lane, he climbed out of the cab, locked it, and followed me to the terminal. Intentionally or not, he reassured me, and I quickly found and ATM, and told the cabby, "I'll just get some here." I withdrew some rand as he waited, and we headed back to the cab.

"Observatory," I told the cabby, pronouncing it ob-zerv-a-tree, as I'd been instructed.

Relieved my bags were still intact and ready for a ride, I relaxed as we pulled away from the curb, riding toward Cape Town.

More to follow...

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