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Hello, my name is Judas Gutenberg and this is my blaag (pronounced as you would the vomit noise "hyroop-bleuach").


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   African Penguins
Friday, April 4 2003

setting: Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa

I'd thought of Cape Town as being a port at the southern end of Africa, but this is only true in the broadest sense. Cape Town is actually in a bay at the base of a fairly long peninsula, the Cape of Good Hope. In fact, it's on a north coast, and this led to all sorts of confusion last night as I saw the sun setting in what I took to be the wrong direction. Today we drove down the cape all the way to its southernmost end. This, by the way, is not the southernmost point in Africa. That distinction belongs to Cape Agulhas, 100 miles to the east.
The Cape of Good Hope definitely feels like what it is, the southern edge of the inhabitable planet. Here the Old World is roughly sheared off after barely reaching the temperate latitudes. Beyond this there is nothing but thousands of miles of ocean and the frozen continent of Antarctica. All of that part of the world so favored by white people and modern farming practices is instead filled with whales, fish, seals, prawns, and penguins. Heightening the edge-of-the-world feel of the cape are its rugged mountains, a jumble of sharp angles and absurdly-steep cliffs jutting like the fins of gigantic monsters from the cold green sea.
We stopped at a place called boulders because the Lonely Planet tour guide said we'd be able to see penguins here. Sure enough, we saw a penguin even before we saw a parkeologist. It was waddling completely unconcerned down the street. Gretchen was speechless, as if the printed word "penguin" had left her completely unprepared for what it meant in the real world. We parked and got out to look at these comical flightless birds.
You could walk right up to the penguins, but if you drew too close, they'd make threatening gestures or grudgingly walk away. All Gretchen wanted to do was love them - to hold them in her arms and let them know she was down with all things penguin. She pursued them back and forth across the rocks, sometimes with arms outstretched and other times with a cocked camera. It was patience that finally won her the victory she sought. After a few minutes of slow stalking, she got a chance to reach out and pet a penguin on the back. It immediately reached out and nipped the back of her hand, leaving a pair of injuries roughly one centimeter apart. Gretchen thought it was a small price to pay.
Somehow we found ourselves on an exclusive beach full of microbeaches hidden amongst massive house-sized boulders. Since everyone on this beach was white, our entrance must have been a freakishly unguarded one. As we were leaving we saw that the main entrance was gated and a homeslice was there collection admission fees.
Farther up the beach we passed a fenced-off section densely overgrown with bushes. Under these bushes, here and there, were more penguins, many of them sitting on eggs. Some of the nests were so close to the fence that the penguins were subject to the abuses of human visitors. They'd do things like attempt to poke them with sticks or shower them with bread, a food not normally eaten by the African Penguin. Farther still was a stretch of beach completely fenced off from the public. One could see what was happening on it from a viewing platform accessible by a boardwalk. It was like any other beach on a nice sunny day, strewn with sunbathers both young and old. But none them were human. It was a beach reserved for penguins. They'd sun themselves for a time and then decide to go for a swim. Then they'd come back. Birds, penguins particularly, have a remarkable sense of self-importance. After watching them interact, it's clear that in their religion they were made in the image of their God.
Later we bought a number of craft items at a souvenir store near the beach. Like most businesses in South Africa, this one had a resident animal, a black and white cat who had once been a beach stray. His ears had been notched from past altercations with penguins. This was to be the only place in Africa where one could buy penguin sculptures made by African craft artists - though it made me wonder if any of the artists had actually seen penguins. The welded metal penguin we bought looked stiff and robotic, but he was the closest thing to a representative memento we could find. We also got a lizard candelabra that seemed highly unusual.
We continued down the cape all the way to the lighthouse near its tip within the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve. There's a touristy area there featuring a parking lot, a restaurant, and dozens of opportunistic baboons. Upon arriving, the first thing you notice is the odd sight of baboons sitting on top of parked cars. The baboons have a reputation for being aggressive here, so black guys dressed in knit caps and armed with slingshots patrol the parking lot to keep them on the run. They are the only humans that the baboons fear.
We had lunch in the restaurant overlooking the spectacularly Antarctic mouth of False Bay. By some freak circumstance the menu included both vegetarian and seafood curries, and they were actually good.
Up the trail to the lighthouse, the constant southeasterly gale blew with an almost dangerous force. Pity the young woman who'd come there dressed in a short skirt. She was disabled by modesty and could do nothing with her hands because they were both assigned to the task of holding down her skirt.
On the way back to the car, Gretchen posed for a photo with a baboon on a Cape of Good Hope trail sign. It was a dangerous thing to do; people have been severely mauled having such Kodak moments in the past. But she wasn't happy just posing with the baboon - she succeeded in stroking the back of his hand as well. Immediately afterward the baboon swung down from the sign and mounted another male in what was probably a show of dominance well within the conventions of baboon society.

On the ride back north up the Cape, we took the route up the west side to see the beautiful Atlantic coast. Along the way we passed beautiful fishing villages, ostrich farms, and intersections lined with the stalls of merchants selling carved wooden sculptures. In some places there were a reasonable number of white people out and about - even white hitch hikers (a rarity!). But as usual most of the people we saw were black people sitting around waiting. For individual members of the cheap black labor pool, it's a hell of a haul up the cape to the sunbaked, landlocked shantytowns.

It wasn't long after we got off the freeway and onto the surface streets of Cape Town that we came upon a couple of non-whites engaged in a brick fight. I saw one of the guys actually hit the other with a brick. Pow! It snapped in half with a dusty impact. We were stopped at a light and I naturally feared we'd get hit in the crossfire, so I was pleased to see that there was already someone there informally trying to break it up. Nonetheless, when the light turned green I floored it.

In the evening, once we were safely back at the Liberty Lodge, Gretchen wanted to go out yet again for dinner. I was still full from lunch and just wanted to lay around and watch teevee. So she went off on her own.
There doesn't seem to be any actual cable television network in South Africa, so one has to make do with broadcast channels. Mercifully, though, broadcast teevee is either well-regulated or subject to salubrious consumer demands. Advertising seems less intrusive here - there are noticeably fewer ads per hour, and they tend to be less repulsive than their American counterparts. The saddest thing about the programming is that eighty percent of it is year-old American shows. If you speak English, it's awfully hard to avoid being subject to American culture.
I was particularly eager to watch coverage of the ongoing war with Iraq. Interestingly, news anchors in South Africa do not refer to the invaders as "coalition troops" - they use the more accurate term "Anglo-American troops." It's also refreshing not to see a flapping American flag in the lower or upper left of the screen.
Tonight I had an unexpectedly good time watching an episode of Survivor Thailand. Not being much of a Survivor fanatic, I had no idea whether this was an old show or a new show, but it didn't much matter because of my low-level of personal investment. In the past I'd found Survivor nearly unwatchable because of the heavy ad load - but under South African advertising rules it came across as a much better show.

After several hours Gretchen returned home. She'd eaten at Rozenhof all by herself, something one doesn't normally see a woman doing in South Africa. A white couple at a nearby table observed this and were so intrigued by her "aplomb" that they invited her to their table. After dinner, which they paid for entirely, they took her back to their house, tied her up with electrical wire and duct tape, and forced her at gunpoint to wear frilly white lingerie. No, actually, they just sat around drinking wine and talking about the new South Africa and how impressed they were by the positive direction of things. By then it was rather late, so they gave Gretchen a ride home.

See some photographs from the South Africa trip.

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