Your leaking thatched hut during the restoration of a pre-Enlightenment state.


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


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   South African freeway driving
Monday, April 7 2003

setting: Franschhoek, Wine Country, Western Cape, South Africa

Gretchen complained about a sore throat this morning and I was concerned she might be coming down with the cold I still had at the beginning of this vacation. So this morning she did her best to consume foods and beverages rich in vitamin C, particularly the Afrikaner favorite, rooibos tea. She also repeatedly held that friendly chicken in her lap and fed her bits of biscuit when she begged and sang her little chicken song.


Today's task was to drive east all the way to Knysna (pronounced NIGHZ-na), nearly two thirds of the way to Port Elizabeth (the place where the African coastline turns northeastward).
First we had to find our way southeastward to the big highway known as the N2. Getting there meant climbing up through the beautiful Franschhoek Pass and then traversing many miles of open space. At first it looked like the bush that passes for South African wilderness, but then this gave way to huge agricultural fields. We must have been on some sort of high plateau for much of this leg, because occasionally gusts of wind would affect the handling of the car.
We stopped in Swellendam so Gretchen could make use of an internet café, but their internet connection was on the fritz, so all we could do was drink Castle beer (me) and "orange juice" (Gretchen). The colored fluid that passes for orange juice in South Africa is, like the "coffee," not the sort of thing for which a discerning appetite prepares one.
The many miles traveled today on the N2 gave me plenty of experience with the peculiarities if South African driving. Though a major, well-maintained freeway, the N2 is only two lanes wide for much of its length. People want to pass on this highway, not necessarily because they're in a hurry, but just because they don't like having somebody in front of them. They come up very close behind you and it's your responsibility (or at least it seems that way) to get out of the way. So you graciously pull over across the yellow line into the emergency lane and let them go. They'll usually flash their hazards as a way of saying thank you after they're past. Interestingly, this policy extends even to segments of four lane road. People are so adamant about the right to pass that it's as if it's the passee's responsibility. In cases where there is no emergency lane or where that lane is narrow, the blocking car may only be able to put a small fraction of its width out of the way. In such cases the passing car will depend on cars in oncoming lanes to scoot over into their emergency lanes - anything to make a temporary virtual passing lane. It takes awhile to get used to this driving paradigm, but even after that, one can never really relax. The road ahead can look perfectly clear but then you'll cross the top of a hill and have to swerve into the shoulder to avoid a BMW taking who has chosen that moment to come out around an overloaded lory that can only fit halfway into his shoulder.

We stopped in Mossel Bay for lunch at the Post Tree Restaurant. We parked our car in a parking lot directly across the street from it and, given all the stuff in the trunk, we were anxious to employ a parkeologist. There were three or four indigents hanging out nearby atop a concrete wall. They wore filthy western clothes and had the weathered, deeply-lined faces of Bushmen. The only thing that gave us any confidence about their motives was their readily-apparent lethargy. As we walked by, one of them lazily called after us in an unfamiliar language. Given the context, it was clear he was saying, "Hello, my name is !Xhab!xaa and I will be your parkeologist this afternoon." I gave him the thumbs up, which in American means "That's cool," but in some other cultures means "Kindly go fuck yourself."
We dined in the Post Tree courtyard, the only customers not at the bar. Our waiter was a big white guy from Johannesburg and he lavished us with attention, standing around to chat with us long after it was appropriate to do so. Mercifully, though, he did leave us alone once our food came out. Also in the courtyard was a very friendly cat named Michæl who made his introductions from the mosquito netting overhead, which he was using as a hammock. I'd ordered the clam linguine and found it disappointing. Not only did it have very little flavor, but it came drenched in a peach-colored red sauce which was, in my opinion, gratuitously creamy. I'd been warned about such food in the guidebook, which says creamy flavorless food is a hallmark of the so-called Malay cuisine.
As we returned to our car, I played a little game with our parkeologist to test his level of motivation. We walked straight past him like he wasn't there. His response was to cough deliberately and then, when that didn't work, to come running at us. I immediately turned around and handed him his money, which was already counted out in my hand. I noticed now that there had been a woman with him, and for some reason she was finding this interaction extremely entertaining.
After that we spent a brief time down on the beach. I collected some sea shells (small abalones, clams, and a few whorled gastropods) while Gretchen stretched out on the sand and tried to absorb some heat from the sun, which was obscured by heavy clouds. Her health must have deteriorated further because now she complained of being cold even as I waded in the surf perfectly comfortably.

The countryside was comprised of large fields and fenced-off range as far east as Wilderness, whereupon the N2 descended abruptly to the Indian Ocean and everything changed. Suddenly we were surrounded by lush forests, some of them actually comprised of native trees.
Knysna wasn't much further down the road and was situated on the shores of a sheltered lagoon. Its skyline to the south was a continuous ridge cut in one spot as if by a massive icecream scoop, the place where the lagoon met the Indian Ocean.
We checked into the Yellowwood Lodge and got a room overlooking the waterfront, just over the top of a Total sign. (Like the Detroit area, South Africa is rich in gas stations belonging to the Total franchise.) Due to Gretchen's health, we decided to stay here for the next two nights.
Despite her health, Gretchen remained more motivated than me. She set off on her own into downtown Knysna for dinner while I watched stupid teevee programmes. Later we played Scrabble and she kicked my ass.

See some photographs from the South Africa trip.

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