So it’s our last day here. Our flight leaves just after midnight tonight. I am NOT looking forward to getting on an airplane with an overtired, overheated, overexcited little kid. But what can you do? We have to go home, and we’re definitely ready to go, I think. This morning was cool and cloudy, but the sun is coming out now. Yesterday we withered in 45-degree heat. Well, it was only 35 degrees Celsius inside. It made me realize how divorced we are in Canada from the outside world with all our central heating and air conditioning and screened windows.
Overall, I’m glad we made the trip and it was the right thing to do, but I have to say that it was definitely harder than I expected. It’s a long time for our little guy to be away from home and the familiar, and I don’t know if I’ll be keen to do it again any time soon. I didn’t realize when we left, but I think my expectations were just way too high after our last two trips here. This trip was much more real, and real life is boring and itchy and annoying in addition to the warmth and sunshine and honey.
It strikes me now that I’ve done a lousy job of documenting the trip for my son’s memory. But everywhere we went we’d already been to with him when he was one, and it felt like I would just be taking the same pictures over again, only with him bigger and longer. Perhaps I should take a minute this morning to write down the experiences I want to remember, for myself or for my son, before the delirium of the long flight home erases them.
First, the car guards. They’re men who don flourescent-coloured vests and they wave you into your parking spot and then keep an eye on your car while you go about your business. Then you give them a few rands when you come back. I’ve always wondered what they would actually do if someone tried to break into your car, and I hope it’s nothing. But I suppose just the eyes can be a bit of a deterrent. Mostly, I think it’s an opportunity to help someone out in a country with an unemployment rate estimated somewhere around 40 percent (though the government’s official number is 22 percent – I think they count the streetside vendors and car guards as employed).
When we went to the museum in Company Gardens, we parked on a back street. There weren’t many people around at all, but there was a car guard there, with a bucket of murky water for washing the cars I guess. He had a couple friends hanging out with him, and when we returned, they were all clearly drunk and pouring more vodka from the bottle. The car guard was quite taken with our son: “I can see that he is a Man of God. You are a Man of God. Praise Jesus Christ. He is a Man of God, a good man….” He went on like that for some time, until eventually I’d strapped our son into the car seat and we were in the car. I’m glad they were happy drunk, but since it was only about 2 in the afternoon, I’m not sure the cheerfulness would endure the whole night.
The other night we ate at an Indian restaurant in Upper Woodstock, called Chandani. They have a fountain in their front stoep and our son pulled us out there throughout the meal. A car guard stood at the gate, and immediately he called to my son: “I have something for you, my brother. What’s your name?” And the car guard pulled out a necklace he made to sell, and he put it around my son’s neck. It was a leather string with a few beads and a leather cross on it. My son loved it. The car guard told him he sells the necklace to buy milk for his children, allying my son to his cause. He wanted 50 rands for it, but I didn’t have that and I wasn’t about to pay that for it anyways. When I made to take it off my son’s neck, he said we mustn’t do that, so we negotiated. In the end, I gave him the change in my pocket, which totalled 10 rands.
Later, during another trip to the fountain, he told me his name was Robert and he’s from Sudan. He has a wife and two little kids aged 1 and 3, who are waiting for him to earn enough money to stay at the Loaves and Fishes shelter in nearby Observatory. It costs 38 rands. If he doesn’t make that amount by 11 pm, they will have to sleep rough. Having a foreign accent generally brings out everyone’s sad stories, and they might not always be true, but even if this story is not true for him, I’m sure it’s true for someone.
The amount we spent on dinner for 7 of us that night would have paid the monthy rent for two of the independent-living residents in the Haven Old Age Home I photographed in Woodstock, and would have paid for Robert and his family to be sheltered for 24 nights. The disparity in resources here is shocking and shaming. And the currently strong Canadian dollar can’t explain it all, because many South Africans spend similar amounts on dinners out.
As someone said in one of the books I read here (I can’t remember which one), you have to have a thick skin to live in Cape Town.
I think my son might most want to remember the helicopters that put out fires on the mountain. One day I returned home from a morning of photographing in Woodstock to see several helicopters with their red water buckets dangling. They fly down to the ocean to fill up the bucket with water, then they fly back to the fire and dump the water on it. Apparently while I was away, there was a fire right behind our house on Lion’s Head. My husband and son could even see big flames. So they watched all the activity, and when I came home, my son said sadly, “There’s no more helicopters. There’s no more fire for them to put out.” His lower lip stuck out. I don’t think he really gets the problem with fire.
So now we will pack, and maybe pick up a few mementoes from the trip, and I’m hoping to get some small prints for the people who were kind enough to let me in to photograph them in Woodstock and give them back. And then, I suppose, waiting. Waiting for the airplanes to take off, waiting for them to land, waiting to open our front door and – fingers crossed – say we survived.