Saturday is reserved for a trip to The Cradle of Humankind, because after a few consecutive nights out partying in various pubs, lounges and clubs – all, inexplicably, located in the these totally ordinary stucco malls (pronounced “mowls”), “we should get some culture” (according to Karin). We are accompanied by Karin’s friend Evan (pronounced Eih-vahn), a South African teacher who has been away living in London UK for eight years. He has recently returned with an eye to finding a job in the Eastern Cape.
He pulls up into the yard and greets Karin warmly. We introduce ourselves and it is like I have known him all my life. Over the past several days Karin has introduced me to many warm, open people and I have already been struck by that instant-family South African thing I kept hearing about prior to my trip. With Evan, it’s like that times a thousand. He is an old friend within 20 minutes of meeting him.
We three climb into the car and pull out of the yard. Though we had done a lot of driving (in Joburg you must drive everywhere – nothing is close and there is no public transportation; it is Los Angeles without the smog… or Americans) this is my first road trip. It feels great. The sun is shining and within a half hour we are in some beautiful African country. As Karin and Evan catch up, mostly in Afrikaans, I roll down the window and dangle my arm out, letting my fingers float on the warm wind.
The Cradle of Humankind is a nature reserve and a World Heritage site. It is also a museum of sorts. It takes the evidence from the fossil record along with other bits of science-y stuff and presents a sometimes-profound, sometimes-baffling exhibit on the beginnings of humankind. As it turns out, we all come from Africa, which is good to know should I have any problems at customs.
We walk in and pay for our tickets in an open foyer. As we are waiting for the debit machines, we hear this howling and screaming from below, as if they are hosting a Hallowe’en haunted house in the basement. In preparation for whatever lies below I visit the Toilet of Humankind, and we head down the steps. The howling gets louder and as we approach I can make out subtler noises: wind, rumbling, splashing, and perhaps, frail screams. We turn the corner and there stands a smiling guy beckoning us into a round plastic boat. I am not making this up. The exhibit begins, apparently, with a terrifying boat ride.
We get in and the raft lurches forward. It is round, like a Cheerio, and it lazily spins as we move forward through what can only be described as the Dawn of Time. We float through a narrow and frosty aperture; we are lightly misted; we pass a waterfall and a glowing volcano that gives way to stalagmites and stalactites; and finally we round a corner and witness grinding tectonic plates. Then, the bottom of the boat catches on a subaquatic hook and we are pulled up a ramp where we disembark.
We visit the museum which makes a convincing case that we are all family, and also that we’ve completely fuckered the Earth. There are some very depressing statistics about pollution, literacy, AIDS and HIV, consumption, wealth distribution, and war. There is also a 2 or 3 minute looping display on human creativity that is like the rapid-fire aversion therapy movie the goverment shows Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange, only much more positive, obviously.
Then we are hungry, so we make our way outside. I send the other two off to find food and order me a Windhoek beer, and I stay behind to take a few photos.
I spend a few moments cursing the fact that I don’t have a wide angle lens because this is wide angle Africa!
I meet Karin and Evan at the appropriately vulvar Cafe of Humankind.
P.S. had a perfect crêpe here, stuffed with spinach and camembert. Should have taken a picture but my hands were too busy shovelling bites into my maw.
On the way back I am feeling rather reflective. Here I am, literally all the way across the world with two people I have just met – one of them within the last 2 and a half hours – and I am happy and peaceful and safe. It is a powerful thing, to take a risk and have everything be OK. I know that part of this trip is about testing the theory that I do not have to maintain absolute control in my life at all times… and then I laugh at myself for being so knob-turned-to-11 all the time. I suppose there are mellower ways teach yourself that lesson than to come all the way around the world to a place known to be dangerous and to stay with strangers. At the same time, I don’t regret anything about the experience. It’s been absolutely marvellous.
Evan begins to ask about the rest of my trip, and when I tell him I am going to East London, he asks if I have ever heard of the Garden Route. I have not, and then there’s that South African thing again: on the drive home we make a plan to have him meet me in East London. We will rent a car and drive three days to Cape Town together. We will see the beautiful Garden Route, enjoy a springtime road trip, and have an adventure. It rivals the crêpes for the best idea of the day.
Karin’s phone rings and when she sees the number she passes it to me: it’s Marlise Scheepers! Remember, Marlise was the woman Callie had put me in touch with but she had not yet returned my call. Marlise apologizes for the delay and then tells me she had been robbed and they took her phone. I am a bit shocked, and I say I am sorry – that she should not worry about me. Then she says, “They put a gun in my ribs” and she sounds very sad. It rattles me. Here we are again, drifting along happily and …DANGER! Welcome to Africa.
We all go out that night for my last night in Johannesburg. We go to see Karin’s friend Tamzin DJ at the opening of a new lounge in Rivonia, and I am again amazed at how easily I have come to feel at home. I am already acquainted with five or six people – I could have come here alone and known people!
Evan spends the night at Karin’s and crawls out of bed to say good-bye before I go. When I hug him I am aware of how much I am looking forward to seeing him again. Karin drives me to the airport (it is an odyssey to find the departure drop-off place), and we say good-bye. I try not to think that it is the last time I will see her.
I check my bag with an unusually surly check-in woman who I try to cheer up but she proves to be immune to my charm. Shrugging, I throw my carry-on over my shoulder and walk to security. The security gate in the Johannesburg airport is a switchback for a queue, at the end of which there is a sign on the floor that says, “Please wait to be called forward.” I am the only one in the queue but like a true Canadian I walk the entire length, refusing to cut the corners. What is with that? I get to the end and stop at the sign. There is a woman in a uniform at the end. I wait.
The X-ray machine is empty but still I am not called forward. Finally the guy at the X-ray motions so I tentatively move, flashing a guilty glance at the sign on the floor. I take a step and the security woman starts to laugh, “Oh! I wondered why you weren’t going anywhere. Pay no mind to that, darling.” I laugh, too, and lightly touch her arm as I pass, “No way – that is funny.” The man at X-ray asks, “Any belts? Any keys? Anything metal?” I say no, and he carries on “Any motorcycle today?” I hesitate and his face breaks into a smile. Since when are airport security guards playful?
After only 4 hours’ sleep I am very tired, and I am delighted to find a cafe with a real espresso machine. I have a ham and cheese croissant (and there any other kinds?) and a latte, after which I feel magnificent. My 1time flight boards on time, and I put on my eyeshades. With the exception of waking up to purchase a water at the exorbitant price of 8 rand 50 (about a dollar), I sleep all the way to East London.