Entry #033: Saturday, September 7, 2013 (Cape Town, South Africa)

Another week finished, and now I'm almost done with my time in Cape Town and, indeed, South Africa. Not quite there yet, so I'll hold off on my reflections about this leg of my trip, but man does it feel accomplished. They say you can do everything in Cape Town, and it feels like I have, many things in an impromptu fashion. It's been great, and hopefully will be capped off well. But let's get into what's been going on the last few days, shall we?

Tuesday was basically a wasted day, mostly because I was pretty stupid. There were two major chores I had for the day. The first was to go to the American consulate and work out my visa issues however possible, and the second was to pick up an underwater GoPro camera setup for my shark diving trip. It was all planned pretty well; I was going to get to the embassy at 1pm, and then head out to the fairly distant Somerset West to pick up the camera at about 3pm. So I planned my day around this. I didn't want to risk missing my trip to the consulate, so I decided against doing any sort of activities in the morning. I ate a lunch of leftovers, and then headed out. When I got to the consulate, I immediately noticed that there was significantly more security than at the Chinese consulate. Some guards came up to me, somewhat suspiciously, asking what I wanted. I explained that I had an appointment. They told me that everyone was out to lunch, and would be back at 2pm. But that can't be right, I said, my appointment was at 13:00. I took out my phone to show them the appointment listing, and that's when I saw it said 3:00. See, this is why a country not being consistent with it's time displays is a bad thing.

So, I was more than two hours early, and I had to send a message to the camera folks to delay that meeting, and I felt like a total idiot to boot. I didn't want to drive back home (because that would nearly an hour in itself, so I decided to just do some grocery shopping in a nearby store. I also remembered that I needed cash. A lot of cash. I actually needed to make a deposit for the camera, to the tune of R5,500. That's about $550. In cash. And I had about R20 in my pocket. Now, as I'm sure most of you are aware, mot ATM's have a limit on the amount that you can take out in a single transaction. And your bank often has a limit on what you can take in a day. More than that, and your transaction will be declined. Long story short, I ended up going to about nine or ten different ATM's before I was able to get the necessary amount of cash. And for some reason, the banks don't like working in R200 bills, so I got 55 R100 bills. That's a bunch of cash to be carrying around, prompting me to be sufficiently nervous about any alleys I walked into.

I made my way back to the consulate at about 2:30, because hey, I had nothing else to do. They let me in, and after a thorough check that I wasn't a terrorist (including checking the engine of the car, which made me realize I didn't know where the hood latch was), I was let in. I quickly realized that having an appointment was unnecessary - I could have just come it on any day at any time and nothing would have changed. I got up to the window, explained my situation, and asked what my options are. "Oh, we can't help you with that." That was it. They basically told me that the options presented at the Chinese consulate were the only options available. So, it was either go back to the US, or take a side trip to Hong Kong.

.........Hong Kong it is!

I then drove out to the Somerset West shopping mall, and ironically enough, because the meeting at the consulate had been so short, I was actually there in time for the originally scheduled meeting, but as it was, I was quite early. So I spent some time putzing around, looking in the various stores, including an electronics store selling an Ultra-Definition TV. It was almost assuredly just for show, costing about $10,000 in a place where that is more than some people's yearly salary. But I will say, it was quite large and impressive. I also went to their local REI equivalent, and considered both some insulated water bottles and a new pair of shoes (I really love the shoes I got, but I'm wearing them down quick), but decided against both. I met up with the folks renting me the camera in a coffee shop, tried exchanging money in the most discreet way possible as they handed me a huge, yellow Pelican briefcase. I would not blame someone for thinking it was a drug deal. They then asked me for the actual rental price, which I realized I neglected to take from the ATM. I convinced them that they could just take it from the deposit, and them being a friendly couple, they agreed. I then drove home, and was treated a beautiful sunset, with the sun just above Table Mountain, covered by clouds and creating a glorious array of crepuscular rays. It was very nice, and made me feel better about the fact that the whole day was wasted.

I had an early dinner, and then went to bed early, because I had to wake up quite early the next day. Like, 4:30 in the morning early. For a guy like myself that hates mornings...it wasn't fun. But it was necessary, because I had to be at the Simon's Town pier (a 45 minute drive) at 6am, so I had to grin and bear it. Well, bear it at least...no grinning. When I got to the pier, I saw that there were a number of other folks on vacation, mostly from the US, but one couple that I correctly guessed was from Vancouver (I'm getting good at telling apart Americans and Canadians). We gathered at this little tub of a boat, all bundled up (it was understandably chilly), gathered on, and then took off. We went out to Seal Island, which had nothing to do with the popular 90s singer (although, oddly enough, both Seal and Bonnie Tyler are still very popular here). Instead, as the name would imply, it had thousands upon thousands of seals. As you can guess, it's also a popular spot for Great Whites, and we were told that there have been about five predations every sunrise for the last several days.

In fact, there were about five or six predations that morning (you can always spot one when you see seals, seagulls, and of course, sharks). Unfortunately, we never got a front row seat for any of them; we only saw them happen from a good distance away, though we did manage to see the remains of seals floating about. There was one genuine missed opportunity in there, because as we were racing over to see the end of one predation, one of the guests said, "I just saw a shark over there." The captain probably didn't hear her (or didn't care), and then a minute later we saw that there was a predation at exactly the spot we passed. So that would have been cool to see, but such is life. We then dropped anchor and prepped to go in the cage. I was in the first of two groups to go down. I was a bit disappointed to learn that we were going in wetsuits and not drysuits. Not that I really expected drysuits, but CHRIST that water was cold. In fact, every moment I was in the water was uncomfortable. The suit was tight (obviously), the weight belt was tied around my stomach was notched tight, and the water was so cold that my hands were getting numb and my stomach twisted in knots. Oh, and I felt like I was getting sick. That's probably the biggest hindrance to my derring-do lifestyle - the fact that I get seasick when not moving quickly. And being anchored, bobbing up and down...that'll do it. I don't know why; it doesn't happen in any other mode of transportation. I had even taken some medicine to combat it, but I could feel it wasn't working.

Still, I managed to stay in the water for quite some time, and we ended up having two sharks stay by our boat, one 3.5 meters long and the other 4.5 meters long. I got a few good, close looks at them. One of the other guys in the cage actually had the shark brush against his shoulder. Unfortunately, I did an absolutely abysmal job with the camera, and I either didn't start recording properly, or I didn't face it in the right direction, so I barely caught any of the good stuff. So that part kind of sucked. Eventually, the cold got to everyone in the cage, and we had to get out. The second group went in, and we were all told we could all go back in after them. Only one person kept their wetsuit on; everyone else, myself included, took theirs off and tried to get dry. While part of me wanted to go back down, I can't even begin to stress how uncomfortable it was. So, I stayed up, getting dry and having something to drink, and then I knew I was going to be sick. Now, despite getting seasick, I get seasick in the best possible way. I didn't feel nauseous, I didn't mope around, I just walked to the side of the boat where nobody was looking, threw up, and walked back. Literally nobody even realized that it happened. I then had a few snacks to tide me over.

One of the coolest parts of the trip was actually not while I was under, but while on the boat, because we saw a shark (at another boat) breaching the water, almost fully (only the end of his tail didn't come out). It was an amazing sight, and thankfully, one of the guys got it on camera in an amazing shot. Then, on the way back, we just happened to run into a pair of whales, which was amazing in its own right, as they were incredibly close to the docks. As they turned over, it even looked like they were waving at us. It was a nice bonus to the whole thing. Shortly after, we landed, and everyone was on their way. Now, the big question: was it worth it? That's surprisingly difficult to answer. I paid about $170 or so for the trip, which is about standard for a reputable company. That's no small amount of change; I could buy a lot with that. And while I think shark cage diving is worth doing, and worth paying money for, I don't know if it was worth that much. But since that's the price, I guess I can just say, do it once. But the real issue is that it's almost like gambling, because you can't be guaranteed you'll see anything interesting, or anything at all. It's a weird thing. Either way, I'm happy I had a chance to do it.

After leaving there, I drove a short distance until I arrived at Boulder Beach, home of the famous African Penguins, also known as "Jackass Penguins" (no, I didn't name them that - it's because their call legit - legit - sounds like a donkey braying). I just walked along, looking at the little guys do their thing, eavesdropping on the local tour guides, and generally enjoyed a walk along the beach. I had a fairly late lunch at the Boulder Beach Restaurant, where I got their lunch special: fish and chips with a free glass of white wine. Because I couldn't change the wine to a different drink, I accepted it, and actually drank about 2/3, maybe 3/4, of the glass. I have to prepare myself for my winery trip on Sunday, after all. But man, was it terrible! I remember that a lot of people who do drink wine say that white wine is the lesser form, and I can see why.

I then decided to drive out to Cape Point, the furthest southern point of Africa. Unfortunately, upon arriving at the gate, I realized I had barely any gas left, and so had to turn around and find a station to fill up at. This was surprisingly tricky, and ended up taking me an extra half-hour or so. And when I did find a gas station, there was a line of boats waiting to fill up. So I had to wait even longer. After that, I went back to Cape Point, but passed it to see the Cape Point Ostrich Farm. I asked them what the deal was. As expected, it was an ostrich farm. Nothing terribly new to see. Having scratched that itch, I went back to Cape Point, and went into the park proper. I was hoping to watch the sunset at the meeting of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, but apparently the park closed at 6pm, and you had to be out of the gate by sunset, lest you get fined a hefty amount. But at least I could see the stuff.

When I reached the parking lot, I had about two hours to see what I was going to see, which was just enough. I quickly went on the Cape of Good Hope trail, which got me out to one of the main cliffsides. It was, as you can imagine, spectacular. And it's funny - I was legitimately upset that I did not have Factoria the Travel Monkey with me to take some pictures with. What a perfect spot - the edge of the world! I wish I had thought the day through before I left that morning. But I made the most of what I had, and still got some good pictures, including one of myself sitting on the ledge, which was exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure, because it was a very windy day, and one false wind would have easily pushed me over the edge, letting the girl taking the picture steal my camera. I hiked back from that, and then went up to the Cape Point Lighthouse, where I saw the famous road sign to different parts of the world. I then walked around as much as I could before closing time.

Driving out was occasionally a challenge, as there were baboons (AAARRGH!!!) everywhere, sometimes literally just copulating on the road. I really felt the urge to run them all over, but I didn't think that would be covered by the rental insurance. On the way back home, I stopped at the Black Marlin, a place purportedly famous for its seafood. It also said online that reservations were essential, with many reviews saying the place was really crowded. This made me all the more confused when I got there, because the place was deserted. Seriously, not a soul was filling the 150 seats there, save for one waitress. I had to ask her if they were open, and she assured me they were. I saw on their sign that they had opened about ten minutes prior, so I figured it would fill up before too long. I sat down and, after giving it some thought, ordered a Cape Malay seafood dish. Navine had been telling me for some time to get Cape Malay food, and this place being famous for seafood in a town famous for seafood, I thought I should get seafood, even though it was the most expensive Cape Malay dish on the menu. I've since learned a lesson: seafood is overrated and overpriced. Now, I like seafood just fine. It's good. But, like Quizno's subs, it's not good enough to justify the premium price. I'm not one of those guys who thinks expensive food tastes better. To me, value is delicious. I felt like I would have enjoyed this just as much if it were chicken or vegetables, which would have saved quite a bit, to boot. Sorry to all the fish-lovers out there; that's just my take. In any case, when I got home that night, I didn't bother with anyone. I'd been out for nearly 15 hours, and I just wanted to rest. I guess the two other guests had cooked food, and made a plate for me (very kind of them), but it ended up just going into leftovers.

On Thursday, I drove back out to Somerset West to drop off the camera, and got back all of my deposit except for the rental cost (and I even got R100 off the rental cost because I left the footage on the camera for them to use for promotional purposes; I tried telling them the footage wasn't great, but they were happy to provide the discount anyway, so bless their hearts!). So, yeah, I now had a ton of cash that I'd probably want to get rid of. I knew one place I could rid of some of it, at least! I drove out to Lion's Head, which is a particular peak of Table Mountain separate from the mountain proper. I had actually found out on Wednesday evening that this was a popular spot for paragliding, and had made an enquiry into it. Within twenty minutes of filling out the form, I got a response, and so I had a booking scheduled for noon. So, I got to the base of the trail, and met up with the paragliding team. My tandem partner took me partway up the Lion's Head Trail, until we reached a tarp that was draped over one of the sides of the hill (with a mighty slope). This would be the takeoff point. My partner told me to be very careful when taking off, and to only run - no jumping, no diving - until I couldn't run anymore. Before we took off, we watched another participant do it. As soon as they lifted the parachute in the air (and it's amazing how quickly it goes aloft), they began running. The dude, though, jumped off a rock, which actually slowed him down, and so the parachute overshot him, and he ended up face-planting into the bush. "Just run," I confirmed with my partner, "Right."

Thankfully, my departure went infinitely smoother, and within a short sprint, I was in the air. And man, what a thrill! I had worried beforehand that this would be too similar to skydiving (which I've already done), but in actuality, paragliding is a very different kind of excitement from skydiving. Skydiving is an adrenaline rush, all about the free-fall. Paragliding is more about the sensation of moving swiftly through the air, seeing the earth and clouds below you pass by. It was a wonderful experience. Because some (light) clouds showed up just as we were taking off, we couldn't go as close to the mountainside as we would have liked, but passing by and through the clouds was pretty neat in its own right. And once we got through them, we could see all of Camps Bay. After taking my turn doing some light steering, my tandem partner took control and asked if I wanted a slower descent, or a faster, more exciting descent. I was conflicted; I wanted to stay up as long as possible, buuuuut......"Let's go nuts," I said, and he obliged. We did some fancy acrobatics on our way spinning downward, and came to a perfect landing. It was pretty awesome, and I got some great photos and videos out of it.

I was then dropped back off at the trail head, and instead of going back home, decided to walk to the top of Lion's Head. It was much shorter than Platteklip Gorge's trail, but online, it kept on saying that Lion's Head was "not for the faint of heart", because you have to do some with-your-hands climbing near the top. Truth be told, I actually found it to be easier than Plateklip Gorge, even with those portions. And it's not like you had to dig into rock - there were handles and chains attached to the rocks to help you up (which lent the path it's clever name, "The Chains"). So even though you were told to go up at your own risk, I thought it a nice little jaunt. I got to the top (where the views were, as you might expect at this point, amazing), ate some of the food I brought along, and then headed back down (this time on the easy path, as I wanted to see more of the hill).

When I got home, I made plans to have dinner with the two other guests that were here. I was thinking of going to a local Ethiopian restaurant (because you have to do that as part of a group), but the prices were a bit prohibitive for native South Africans like themselves. So Navine suggested a local, cheap Indian place, and this time drew a small map so I wouldn't get lost. Navine then went off to his badminton, and I went out with the other two. I tried following Navine's instructions to the T, but it turns out they didn't work. I got lost and somehow made a huge circle to end up where I started. So we tried again. This time, one of the other guests suggested making a left turn instead of the instructed right turn. As good a plan as any, I thought. So we did that, and ended up going on a path that seemed nothing like what Navine had drawn for me. "This isn't right," I said, and began going back to the beginning. As I was doing that, we just so happened to drive by the place. Naturally. Still, we got there, which is what was important. I got myself a veggie curry, some garlic naan, and some sort of potato pancake things, which I only wanted to buy because it came with a salad, and I needed more greens. And it was all under $5, which was very reasonable. Unfortunately, they forgot the salad (and having gotten it to-go, I couldn't do anything by the time I found out), but it was still very lovely regardless. All the while, I was having a nice conversation with the two. They seemed very interested in my tales, the boy especially. The more I talked to him, the more he seemed interested in doing more travel.

As it turns out, I apparently did strike a chord with him, because according to Navine the next morning, he seemed like his eyes were opened to a whole new world. Unfortunately, I didn't have a chance to say a formal goodbye, as the two left before I got up for the day, but I wish them all the best. I then decided to go out and do my activities for the day. I was thinking this was going to be another day in town, this time to visit some of the museums, like the Museum of Natural History, the Museum of Culture, and the Planetarium. Navine also suggested that I visit Kirstenbosch, the local botanical gardens. Since that was closest, I decided to go there first.

All in all, I was quite lucky, because I arrived at Kirstenbosch literally as one of their couple-times-a-day tour was beginning. I had no idea what the place was about, so a tour seemed useful. And while the guide seemed to spend a lot of time talking about a new walkway that they are having installed through their arboretum, I still leanred quite a bit about the indigenous plants of southern Africa, many of which are quite gorgeous. And apparently I came during Arbor Week, so that's pretty good timing. After the tour was over, I just walked around, enjoying the scenery, proverbially smelling the flowers (and taking lots of pictures - I've become fairly good at macro shots). I then decided to go out to see some of the museums, which were all in and around the main town's "Company Gardens" area, which is one of the main centers of town.

Unfortunately, being one of the main centers of town, it was super crowded, and try as I might, I could not find a decent parking structure anywhere remotely close to where I was trying to be. I considered street parking, but looking for a parking spot while there are people driving behind you is one of those things that just drives me crazy. In retrospect, I probably could have just parked on Long Street and then walked, but I was over it at that point. I didn't want to have to bother, and so I went home. I wasn't terribly torn up about it; I would have liked to see the museums, but not seeing them hasn't spoiled my very full trip in any way. So, I got back and decided to take a walk out to get some lunch (it already being about 2pm or so). I walked down a kilometer or two to the local shopping center (and, having taken a shortcut through a field, accidentally stepped in a deep mud puddle, completely immersing my right shoe and sock). As I passed by the McDonald's there, I saw something: "The South African". What's this, I thought, a local favor? Indeed it was, and I was suddenly obligated to continue my "disgusting-local-foods-of-McDonald's-around-the-world" tour. Now, unlike the McFondue in Morocco, and really unlike anything in Italy, the South African looked like a normal burger - a two-patty burger with some romaine lettuce and tomato. But what made it different was that the patties were boerewors flavored.

...Yeah, that word looks like a load of gibberish to me, too.

But boerewors is basically a type of sausage. So how was the sandwich? Well.......well, imagine someone taking a McDonald's burger and replacing the burger patties with Jimmy Dean's sausage patties. That's literally all that went through my head as I was eating: Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. It wasn't bad, per se (definitely not the worst thing I've eaten on this McD's tour), but it did taste cheap, if that makes sense. Like, somebody ran out of quality meat, and was trying to replace it with whatever they could find in the freezer. So, another country checked off that life-shortening list. The rest of the day was just spent relaxing. I had a nice dinner conversation with Navine (we've had some really interesting conversations throughout my time here, which I haven't gone into detail about much; it's spanned everything from politics to the circumstances in and around Africa to family to education to American values to religion. It's all been exceptionally civil, even if we don't agree on some of the topics, so it's quite nice), and had some Indian-esque desserts, neither of which I can remember the names of. One was a milky tapioca-like pudding, and the other was a like pancit, except it was sweet, with nuts and raisins. Quite good.

I also finally got a chance to connect by phone with my dad, so we could work out my altered China plans. I swear, international communication can be tricky! Though also on the communication front, I was able to get in touch and have a nice conversation with Mike, one of my coworkers and friends, on Steam of all things. It just goes to show that gaming can bring the world together.

Today was just planned to be a day of not doing anything, because I think I've earned one of those. I actually needed it quite bad in order to sort through my over-1000 photos from the Western Cape area, and of course to write this entry. And I've been quite active in Cape Town, so I don't think I'm somehow slacking off or anything. As such, not terribly much has happened today. I did get a message from the jeweler with an update on my bracelet. His work was close to being done on it, but he wouldn't be able to get it to the laser engraving place until Monday, which obviously wouldn't work for me, since I'd be leaving. As such, I'll be able to pick up the bracelet on Sunday afternoon (after my winery bike tour), but it won't have my summit date engraved on it. Disappointing, but I might be able to get that done elsewhere, maybe even in Hong Kong (then it will truly be an international product, with three countries contributing). Still, I'm looking forward to see what this thing ends up looking like.

The main news of the day was that we got a new person in the house, another American (from D.C., specifically). She managed to get a free ticket to Cape Town (talk about lucky) and is planning to spend three months here. She's only staying with Navine for the first few days, until she finds a way to put some light roots in the town (find a place to stay for multiple months, get a local job), and she said that her mission statement was just to have as much fun as possible (within minutes of me letting her into the house, she was asking about the club scene, so I'll guess she's a bit of a party animal). She seems quite nice, so it's a shame I don't have much time to get to know her. Though we did get a good opportunity today, as we decided to go out to the Ethiopian place I was interested in ("Addis in Cape", in case you were curious). We (her, Navine, and myself) drove out first to the promenade on the water, and just took a nice long walk whilst having a discussion. We then drove to the restaurant, and ordered the "set menu". It was fairly pricey ($20 a person), but it came with an appetizer, had a grand total of eight different dishes (if you don't know Ethiopian food, all the dishes are served on a single large platter, and you eat it using injera bread), as well as dessert (I had some berries and ice cream), and the fanciest tea/coffee service I've ever seen, served on a tray with a small bowl of popcorn and incense. Incense! I don't know exactly why, but I actually kind of liked that - it was such a different post meal experience. I think I might have to look into including incense into my tea time at home. (It also reminded me of my altar boy days.)

Due to us arriving so late in the evening, the relaxed pace of the meal, and the fact that we happened across one of Navine's old homestayers, we ended up staying at the restaurant until 11pm, at which point we got an invitation from Johnny (one of the folks I saw the flowers with last Sunday) to go to his place. I was feeling a bit tired, but didn't want to hold anyone back. So we took a short jaunt to his place, had a cup of tea and a brief conversation, and then got back home. Which brings us to now.

I'm looking forward to tomorrow, my last full day in South Africa. I'll be going on a cycling tour through the wine country, with a few tastings, which should be especially fun for a guy who doesn't like alcohol. But that aside, it's amazing how much I've been able to do in Cape Town. It was definitely worth visiting, and might even make my "only 3 cities I like" list become "only 4 cities I like." It's sad to leave, but I'm looking forward to seeing where I go from here.

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