The moon hangs heavy over the African continent, yellow crescent low and gravid. From my airplane seat, I recognize the beaches and promontories of stunning Cape Town: the bay where we spent the week, the rocky coast where we hiked for dusty hours, the white-sand reservoir on top of Table Mountain where we swam a couple of days ago.
I haven't been writing. I usually write when I travel, but my travels usually involve more time alone. This has been wonderful, exhausting, social, long—and not over yet.
In 2023 I flew about once every two weeks, all year. There was always a reason: conferences, a new job, three or four different kinds of short term work, the culmination of a fellowship, weird grant opportunities. I apply for opportunities the same way some people online shop, and it's amazing what turns up in my inbox. And then my travel habit is exacerbated by life circumstances, family, and friends.
This current trip is family. I saw my brother in Taiwan "on the way" between London and Australia, spent two weeks in terra australis getting to know the country my partner is from, and the last three weeks in South Africa with my parents and brother competing in a series of orienteering races. Now we're rounding out the family visits by seeing my sister in Rotterdam, then closing out with a two-week trek along the Fisherman's Trail.
This itinerary is absurd, and I feel like a dilletante describing it. But this kind of travel is only possible for brief periods in life. Right now, my siblings live in interesting places, my parents are inviting me to join adventures, and for the first time in years, I'm not counting out my vacation days. I'm a student on winter break.
Actually, class starts tomorrow, but it’s fully remote anyway. I might as well be in Portugal going for long walks between lectures.
As the sky darkens, the stars fill the sky, reflected below in the sparse lighting of the towns we pass over. My parents and I are failing to sleep across the left side of row 35. My mom and I wear compression socks, which aren’t enough to keep down the swelling on my left foot: a jellyfish sting from yesterday that now itches with demented intensity. I’m going to feel sepulchral when we land, but I can’t stop thinking: I am so lucky.
This morning, we went snorkeling with seals. Cape fur seals have no natural predators, so you can swim up next to them in the frigid water, and they'll spiral, circle, look up at you with big milky eyes. Bubbles swirl around their bodies, rising through kelp and shafts of sunlight.
Yesterday, we borrowed a kayak from the Airbnb. It was a heavy one block to the beach, and it was overloaded with all three of us, so Rick hopped off, and Eileen and I paddled away. We were greeted with dolphins skimming towards and away, their bodies visible under the clear green water. Back at the beach, Rick and I kayak-surfed a wave with such aplomb that when we glided onto the sand, two little boys ran over in excitement, one of them gripping my shoulders to clamber onto the boat, hoping for a ride. We tried and failed to catch any other waves.
A week ago, in Jeffrey’s Bay, Ryan and I also failed to catch waves body surfing. We walked far down the beach to the swimming spot, then out to the cold breaks. But though we exhausted ourselves to no surfing avail, we pointed wide-eyed to each other at the schools of fish swimming unperturbed through the cresting waves.
It’s hard to write about South Africa, so I haven’t. I’m underinformed. I feel I shouldn’t tell you about the white sand beaches or echoing river canyons without also mentioning the poverty. The class divide is surreal: gated dream mansions on constructed canalways literally across the street from townships of metal shacks leaning all together. There is a complex history of race, colonialism, and oppression that is still very obviously bearing out — and we came to play.
I don't know what it means to be a responsible tourist here. I've only made it through 13% of Mandela's autobiography, I didn't learn any Afrikaans, and this is not my political scene.
What I know is that the humor of gate guards, waiters, and gas station attendants is very deadpan; home security companies post signs advertising armed response; fruits are incredible from the farm stands; and the nature is beautiful. I didn’t always feel safe walking around by myself, but nothing bad happened. In fact, people have been very kind to us.
We got a flat tire on a Sunday, when everything was closed, and one among a big group of loitering guys in the industrial part of town helped us get it patched when we pulled over to ask where a service center might be found. He changed the tire himself, twice refusing to be paid for his help. I still don't know if we insulted his kindness by thrusting money upon him.
Here, we saw cheetahs resting under bushes of scrub, giant spiders found us in bedrooms and bathrooms, and on our race routes, we became intimately familiar with the whip and scratch of fynbos bushes. Cows and goats and baboons blocked the road; cyclists whizzed past on winding drives. I know nothing, after three weeks, and we've already left.