Thursday, May 14

Dining Alone

Tonight, I dine alone.

Don’t pity me. This is an upgrade on my earlier plan. Had I gone with that plan, the previous sentence would have read “Tonight, I dine alone in my room on a king sized Snickers bar while watching the Michael Rappaport comedy ‘The War at Home.’”

See, upgrade. Hooray for me. I am dining alone!

Dining alone, as opposed to not dining at all, is an accomplishment for me. It has taken a fair amount of psychic energy to leave my room this evening. It is not that I don’t want to leave, though the jet lag is a factor, but rather that leaving seems like such a burden. I am not one to fall for the Chicken Little warnings of guidebooks or, even worse, the U.S. State Department, but I have to be honest—South Africa intimidates me.

Actually, let me take that back a step. Johannesburg intimidates me. Joburg is the sort of place where if you ask one of its defenders how she likes it, she will cheerfully reply “I love it there. Sure, I’ve been carjacked a few times, but you can’t let that get to you.” This is not an exaggeration; I have had this conversation.

See, it is reasonable to be intimidated by Joburg. Of course, I am not in Joburg, so that explanation doesn’t carry much weight; I’m in Cape Town. Cape Town is not Johannesburg. Hell, Cape Town isn’t Baltimore. Rather than being a glorified mining town, Cape Town is one of those cities that positively must exist.

“The Atlantic Ocean meets the Indian Ocean, there? Well, of course we need to build something, and it had better be cool.”

And so it is. I went into town in the afternoon. At about 1:30, after sleeping off what I hoped would be the last of my jet lag, I hit the streets with Velaphi, my scruffy-bearded, Zimbabwean guide, friend and confidant. Velaphi will dispute my characterization of him as having a scruffy beard, retorting, “that’s just what happens when I don’t shave.” But I don’t believe him. I think it’s a fashion thing.

The last time I had seen Velaphi, nine months ago in Malawi he had pointed out, as I boarded my plane, “I will probably never see you again.” Wrong. I win he loses. Ha ha.

Our four hours of wandering, a brief time in a big city, revealed enough for me to conclude that Cape Town is, as advertised, a great city. Fine dining? Check. Art and culture? Check. Ocean adjacent? Check, check. African totem statue with numerous Bart Simpson heads sticking out of it in a prominent city square? Check with an exclamation point and a circle around it. Great city from A to Zed.

So why then do I feel intimidated after the sun goes down? Why after Velaphi and I part ways at 7PM, am I inclined to stick to my hotel room? You’d think it would be a reaction to sketchiness or a vague air of menace about the place. You’d be wrong. More than anything, it is the utter normality, the peace and passivity of the place that frightens me.

I like urban decay. I like decrepitude. Or at least I like what they signal, how they provide a clear warning that there is danger or risk. I like decay in the sense that I like rattlesnakes. A rattlesnake may kill you, but at least it gives you fair warning with a shake of its tail. A puff adder will get you in silence. It will kill you before you even know it’s there. All I can tell in Cape Town was that there is potentially some danger somewhere. Hell, Lonely Planet, not an alarmist source, warned me not to let the relaxed atmosphere get me to let my guard down, but I’d be damned if I can tell where the danger is. In the tin-roofed shantytown suburbs, sure, but in the city? Who can tell?

My reluctance to leave my room is not out of fear of danger, but more out of a fear of moderate inconvenience and embarrassment. I hate having to ask the hotel deskman whether it is safe to walk in a particular direction at night when, to the naked eye, it seems so perfectly safe. Somehow I feel that it denigrates both South Africans and myself at the same time, like I am asking “Are there people here so cruel that they might rob me on a safe seeming street, and am I such an obvious tourist that I look like an easy mark?” Or alternatively, “Am I a yahoo racist who has bought in t stereotypes of African cities?”

Finally I build up the courage to ask.

“Is it reasonably safe at this time of night to turn right down Main Street and walk to a restaurant?” I ask the man at the reception desk. He looks surprised, and then nods with a smile, saying only “No problem.”

I feel like an idiot. This may be because I am an idiot.

Nevertheless, with my excuses gone, I walk out the door and turn right into the cool evening air. I immediately start feeling stupider. The street is lively with a restaurant every block or two and a guarded hotel even more frequently.

After walking back and forth a few times, inspecting a few menus and even sitting down at one restaurant, before leaving without ordering when the American woman dining solo next to me starts to complain about aggressive panhandlers, I settle on the Hussar Grille. I am drawn in by the lively crowd and the promise of kudu on the back wall blackboard. I am a sucker for game meat. I like games; I like meat. How can I go wrong?

As I slice into my kudu, a dark lump of meat tangier than beef, yet less sweet, I realize that I am dining alone only in the sense that I am a table by myself. But in my isolation, I am at the center of everything. Conversations revolve around me, as though I am the sun. To my right, a conversation about a rosy-cheeked blonde’s birthday sets into orbit around me. But the gravity of the conversation behind me is far greater. A white American is talking about the consequences of the election of Barrack Obama to some white South Africa friends.

“The thing about Obama is that he’s already changed the racial dynamic in America,” explains my white haired countryman authoritatively. “People can’t say now, that ‘you owe me because by ancestors were slaves 140, 150 years ago.’ They know now that if they work hard and get an education they can make it.”

“Not so different from here,” responds the South African. “It’s only been 15 years but people know that since now that the ANC has power, and with our new President…. Well, they don’t have any more excuses.”

I look around the room. All the diners are white.

How lucky we all are to live in societies where at last merit is the only determining factor of success. How blessed we are to be able to discuss the end of racial inequality from the comfort of a restaurant peopled only by our own kind, save for a few black waitresses. How fortunate we are that freed from the demon of racial discrimination, we can all say with conviction that everyone gets what he deserves. The rich deserve their wealth; the poor have earned their poverty. And far away from the creeping decay of urban slums, we have nothing to fear but the chance that beauty is no guarantee against evil, or even just unpleasantness, lurking around the corner.

I cannot speak for South Africa. I have been here for three days. It is not my country, and I do not know it. But I can speak for my country, of which I have lately been so proud. I can remember that Obama is not an end anymore than Mandela was. I can remember that both men are means; they are transformers rather than the transformation itself. Obama does not signal the end of race in America any more than Mandela singled the end of race in South Africa. In a way, both are Bart Simpson heads sticking awkwardly out of an African fetish object, mockeries of the old ways, sublime in their sophisticated satire of the ignorance of the past generations while almost absurd to those viewing them out of context.

I suck the last bite of kudu; I slurp the last drop of pinotage and then walk out the door without fear, without anxiety, but filled with the humbling melancholy of the knowledge that however far we have come, we—I--have so much longer still to go on our long walk to freedom from fear.