Since I only eat free-range meat or none at all and think hunting is not a real sport but rather some kind of bizarre male bonding ritual leftover from the ‘hunter-gatherer’ era and since I believe in conservation of natural wild things…tonight’s dinner was solely done to prove to my San Diego son that I’m not an exotic-food wimp. I did not break all of my rules; I am quite sure the springbok, kudu and impala I ate for dinner were wild and happy until slaughtered by some great white hunter type who took the heads home to White Bear Lake or Syracuse, and they’re not very endangered…are they? And ostriches are living everywhere. This one probably got loose from the local ostrich farm and was hit by an out-of-control truck between here and Stellenbosch.
Here’s how it all happened. I was wandering around my lovely Green Market Square neighborhood after a site-based performance work that started oddly but ended normally with Jesus (I think) dragging a big broken metal table over the cobblestones and out of sight, his feet all bloody and robe torn and a haunting African melody to cheer him on his way. There’s a sweet restaurant called Da Capo next to my hotel so I decided a meal would be a good thing since I’ve only eaten exotic pancakes since I’ve been here. Through a long and convoluted discussion with my waiter I wound up ordering the following plate under their tapas menu:
I copied that directly from the menu as I said a silent forgiveness prayer to the pagan Norwegian god of turnips and rutabagas.
PROUD OF ME, SCOTT?
And here’s the critique. Kudu is REALLY good. It’s very light somehow. Like the best steak imaginable—the melting in your mouth kind. Absolutely elegant. And I never have to eat it again. Like going to Luxembourg; it’s done and you don’t have to go back even if it was a pleasant experience. Springbok tastes like a nice light pork with a slightly liver-like texture and Impala tastes like a wild animal. I know I must have eaten venison growing up in Minnesota, and once I tasted bear meat. Impala tasted like I imagine that tasted. About ostrich. I could not do that. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because the Swiss Family Robinson kids rode around on them so I associate them with horses. Or because they are so truly ugly. Or because they are being farmed, penned up, not wild and free like I like to imagine my meat having been just prior to my chewing it up.
Now I am having instant cappuccino and dried out ginger cookies for dessert as I write this. Already too much adventure for one day.
The late summer sun beats down on this denuded island of scrub brush and the odd patch of faded weed and dry grass, but the ever-present Cape wind cools its glare. We’re tourists come over from Cape Town on the Robben Island ferry. “Anyone here want to get married today?” Thabo, our guide for the first part of our trip asks. Funny question I think. But after all it is February 14th and there are 29 couples marrying today on what seems an odd choice of sites. Thabo offers his crowd-pleasing explanation, “They say marriage is a life sentence so where is a more appropriate place to begin serving your time!”
Thabo asks us from where we hail and the answers include Japan, Gabon, Belgium, California, the Netherlands, Johannesburg, New Mexico, Botswana and, he laughingly adds, “and my township, this mama in the front row knows me, I better speak well…” The tour bus drives slowly about the Island stopping often for the young man’s stories of life at Robben Island. His soft and easy South African-accented English is almost mesmerizing as he tells the tales of an island used through time as a place for isolating the region’s troublemakers. “I know you are anxious to see where Nelson Mandela lived but he would be the first to remind us that everyone coming through here during apartheid played a part in the struggle.”
After an hour or so with Thabo he bids us good-bye and we are turned over to a stocky smiling man in his fifties, an ex-prisoner, who will take us through the prison compound. Here the story becomes more personal and both more and less horrific than we imagine it to be. John was here for over six years. He lived in the open barracks, a long room heavily barred but for most of his years without window panes to keep the cold and stormy ways of the Cape at bay; they had only mats on which to sleep at first although eventually bunk beds were installed. There were three meals a day but even then the cruel pettiness ever-present in the “divide and conquer” schemes of the apartheid government came into play. A menu board lists the daily rations for “Coloureds/Asiatics” and for “Bantus” who simply received less of everything, including “No jam/syrup” while the lighter-skinned “coloureds” got treated to a daily “1 oz.” of the treasured sweets.
In response to a question about daily life though, John says “I’d be lying to you if I told you every day was bad. It wasn’t. We made a life under the conditions that existed and it had its joys. We worked five days a week, mostly out in the quarries, and we played soccer and tennis on Saturdays. We could socialize, each within our building mostly, but the best thing was our education programs for the kids who wound up prisoners. They had their first real schooling by all the professors and doctors and lawyers sentenced here…remember for most of the apartheid years Robben Island was only for political prisoners and many were professional men.”
We finally get to Mandela’s cell, the climax of our trip. The 8 by 8 cell holds only the bucket which for many years served as the prisoners’ only container for, in turn, drinking water, bathing and waste; a small stool and a mat and blanket. The leaders of the movement had their own cells, sparse though they were, and usually the ability to communicate freely inside and outside where they grew their gardens of flowers and vegetables, both to make time pass and try to maintain some vestiges of normalcy.
This sunny Valentine’s Day in 2010, it is hard to get my mind around the impact of this place on the men who lived here and the society that put them here. Robben Island wasn’t a place of physical torture or outright murder for the most part—that was done elsewhere. This non-descript island with its fairytale view of Cape Town and Table Mountain just a brief span of blue sea away, was a place to play the mental games necessary to break spirits not bodies. What a testimony South Africa today is to apartheid’s inability to conquer those spirits.
John shared a closing thought that would make a striking Valentine’s card image. “You know the prisoners could have visitors, their wives and children over the age of 16, but no one younger could come to the Island. Well, one summer the guards who lived here got to bring their small children to their compound which was at the other end. It seems that by mistake, their babysitters brought them over to the guards’ golf course near the quarry to play. There were many prisoners working in the quarry that day, digging, pounding, crushing the hard rock, when the sound of children’s laughter came to them. All of them stopped dead still and just stood in silence, almost at attention, with tears making tiny rivers down their dusty faces as their thoughts went to their own children and life as it was supposed to be lived.”
But it’s 2010 and there is a Robben Island souvenir shop, and a summer swimming competition is being organized to commemorate some event of Island history, and animal rights activists are up in arms over a government scheme to shoot all the Robben Island bunnies because they are consuming every shred of plant life on the island. So life moves on.
I have a butternut squash pancake and nice South African wine back on the mainland and think about the reality that never quite lives up to the hope and inspiration of big movements but how inspiring it all is anyway. And I think how one of the few places I ever feel lonely when traveling alone is when I’m participating in a group tour. Can one be ‘a wallflower at the tour?’
It’s that last 36 hours before the journey begins. When you wonder what in the world you are doing. Why does anyone leave the comfort of their own space to be humiliated by security, trek down endless halls to your next flight which is always at the other end of the terminal. Get the seat next to a person eating something full of garlic and onions. Wonder if the snow in DC will ever stop. Know you should read the instructions for your new camera. Pay the utility bills. Stop the papers. Throw out the last of the milk. AAAAUUUUUGGGGHHHHHH! But tomorrow I’ll be in love with whole idea again. My hotel in Cape Town is booked and apparently staffed by lovely people who send e-mails to assure me they’ll pick me up at the airport where I’ll arrive quite late at night. And to get to my hotel in Windhoek the next week I should tell the cab driver at the bus station to take me to the hotel across from the “fruit and veg” street. Okay…I’m already happy again.
This is WINDOW SEAT. Now, before this slightly misleadingly-named blog proceeds, I have a confession. After years and years of ALWAYS taking the window seat in whatever conveyance, I’ve now had a relatively short period of asking for the aisle. I used the excuse that I was getting older and wanted to access the bathroom more freely, stretch my legs to prevent deep vein thrombosis and most of the time it was either black night or a sunny blue-domed cloud-carpeted world outside the window anyway. Okay, I repent. I’m back to my window seat. It is actually worth the climb over a bulky sleeping seatmate to catch that first glimpse of the hills or valleys or streetscape of my next NEW place. Here’s an itinerary that will be admired by some, but envied by few if the truth be told. Most people actually do not want to travel. Took me a long time to believe that about apparently rational people. Some of my best friends in fact. But travel as opposed to vacationing isn’t for everyone. And I must admit to being rather a softy as travel goes…no Amazonian rapids or Himalayan peaks…just the next cup of coffee at a very distant counter. But that’s okay. My itinerary feels a little daunting to me too. Roughly it’s this. 7AM to DC, 5:40PM to Johannesburg, an 18 hour flight, gas up in Bamako or Dakar. Late that evening into Johannesburg. (All courtesy of frequent flyer miles—keep your mileage, every single mile and then if you actually wanted to go somewhere you could!) Couple hours flight to Cape Town and I’m home for a week. Although at this moment in time I don’t have a hotel. Cape Town has HISTORY. The Afrikaner stronghold. The white town. The most beautiful city in the world. The racist heart of South Africa. Seems to be all of that. I hope to walk many streets and climb Table Mountain and find Deon Meyer, one of my favorite police/detective novelists and to think about what this city means in relation to Birmingham or New Orleans or Mobile or any one of the American cities where our own racial history is writ large. But in my everyday life for the week I’m focusing on dance and theater. What are artists in a city that is geographically at almost the bottom of the world—9351 miles from Albuquerque—thinking about right now? How to find that out in one week? BUT here is what endlessly fascinates me. How we each think we live at the center of the world. And then we fly for 24 hours or so and it’s somebody else’s center of the world. So then I’ll have a cup of coffee and sleep and get up and walk around this center of the world.
Okay, I vowed that I would blog every other day if I got into this. Now it’s the third day and I must say something about travel…or dance. That is primarily what this blog is about. I’ve been writing grants all day (for dance) and now a wine and NCIS LA—which isn’t nearly as good as the other NCIS. Although I’m thrilled that little old lady (we must support each other) Linda Hunt has a role. What does this have to do with travel? Well in my moments of pacing before the next grant paragraph I thought about all the steps to make my Africa journey productive, inspiring, fun and how to lose eight pounds while I’m away. This is pertinent why? Because the only way I can do the latter is to walk and walk and walk. And I can’t afford to eat anything really delicious anyway (that’s part of the travel budgeting decisions). Walking a lot will put me in touch with the streets of Cape Town, Windhoek, Gaborone and Johannesburg. And during the overnight (maybe) in a town in Lesotho. As most travel books will tell you, planning is half the fun. I did most of my packing last weekend. So early. Because. The suitcase MUST be light. Clothes, a couple of emergency books, although I want to buy many books in South Africa where a splendid display of literature we never hear about is available. Need some instant coffee, underwear, one pair of flats in case dressing up calls for something other than a big size of white tennies. That’s it for today. Am I allowed just to chat like this on a blog? Or is that really tacky? Where do blog virgins go to learn protocol?
WINDOW SEAT is alive and well…as a travel blog with some dance and theater and maybe a personal bit or two thrown into the mix. WINDOW SEAT, the book, will be how I got to here—a not-very-young woman with limited funds who is compelled to go-to-every-country-in-the-world-before-I-die. I have so far been to 61 countries which leaves 131-134 to go depending on who is counting and what month or year it is. Countries do come and go—for example, who knew TWO (Soviet Union and Yugoslavia) would become MANY (about 15)—so I must be concerned about whether my travel stamina and curiosity can keep up. I am fortunate to have a great job working with contemporary artists of every culture, every background and every ability. Often my travels are to see new work and perhaps invite these creative global adventurers to our art center in New Mexico. AND SOMETIMES MY TRAVELS ARE BECAUSE I NEED TO GO ROUND THE NEXT BEND OR SEE OVER THE NEXT RIDGE—revealing my love of road trips even if most places on my travel agenda cannot be reached in my trusty but aging Mazda.
But now…ENTERING BLOG LAND