9 Road Lessons: the Final Report

L1200441On the Serengeti, we saw a guide wearing a T-shirt that said, “Travel without knowledge is like a bird without wings.” Our twist on that truism is that travel without learning is like a race without a finish line.

After leaving home in October, Partout took 15 international flights, 16 intercity rail trips, and countless Metro, bus, tram, taxi, Uber, boat and other rides. Doris’s battered but trusty Fitbit reports we also walked 1,657,675 steps and climbed 2,736 flights of stairs.

Now that we are home again, at last, we have talked a lot about what we learned that will inform and improve our travel in the future. For whatever they are worth and in no particular order, here are our top nine road lessons.


LESSON #1: Travel is easier and more comfortable than ever
Yeah, yeah, yeah, we know. Airport departures have become shoeless torture, and airplanes have become buses with wings. But on a long trip like this one, flights consumed only a fraction of our time. In so many other ways, travel is easier and more comfortable than it has ever been.

Vetting and booking everything from hotel rooms to tour guides is simpler because of the internet. Public bathrooms, once rare abroad and sometimes icky, are common, clean and free of charge in every country we visited except the Netherlands (where the Dutch tend to charge admission). AirBnB and VRBO apartments expand lodging options. Traveler’s checks have gone the way of the dodo bird, thank heavens, and credit cards are universally accepted for just about everything, everywhere, except in the Netherlands (which is essentially a cash economy for outsiders).

Takeaway: Travel more!  

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Public bathroom in South Africa


LESSON #2: Travel slows down time
Research indicates novelty makes time seem to pass more slowly. In this school of thought, childhood days are very long because everything children do is new and engages their brains while adult days fly because routine and familiarity leave the brain on autopilot.

We think they are onto something. On the road, no two days were identical and most were not even remotely similar. All that exploration and discovery had the odd effect of making each day — sometimes even each hour — seem to unfold in slow motion. At a stage in life when anything that slows down the clock feels like a gift, this was delicious.

Takeaway: See Lesson #1

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He needs to travel more


LESSON #3: English has become the lingua franca, at least in cities
One of the biggest shocks of the trip to us veterans of the language dictionary days was how widely English is spoken and written.

In Lisbon, the Portuguese were essentially bilingual. In Africa, we never encountered anyone who could not speak some English, and most people at all stations of life spoke a lot of it. In the Arab countries, signs were all in English in addition to Arabic, including transport and museum signs. Even in English-averse Paris, locals came up to us on the streets to practice their English. We actually found ourselves longing a little for the good old befuddled days of language charades. Travel outside major cities and in many countries we didn’t visit probably still requires pantomime and pictures, but it was lingua angla everywhere we went.

The one exception to this generality was Spain, where the population remains stubbornly monolingual (much to the disdain of their Portuguese neighbors, btw).

Takeaway: Language is not the barrier (or the excuse for not traveling) it used to be 

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English signs for sale in a Nairobi sign store

 


LESSON #4: Essentials are in the eyes of the beholder
We were able to travel so long and far because of five lovely home exchanges that provided us with comfy home lodging at no cost. When we were not exchanging, we almost always stayed in AirBnB and VRBO apartments, which are roomier and more economical than hotels and allow us to prepare some of our own meals. The down side of long-stay lodgings is that they are not as predictable as either homes or hotels, which resulted in some startling discoveries about what different people view as essential.

Toilet paper, for example. Essential or discretionary? One AirBnB in Spain and another in Cape Town had only a few squares on one roll when we arrived and no backup. Hand and bath soap? Not to be taken for granted. Something to wash dishes with? We began packing our own (right next to soap) because so many places were without them.

On the other hand, we never encountered a single kitchen or hotel room that did not come without tea bags and an electric tea kettle capable of instantly heating water. Maybe no coffee but tea for sure.

Takeaway: Dishwashing aids. Don’t leave home without themL1220256


LESSON #5: Ground transportation can be a budget buster
By the end of the trip, we had spent more money on trains and other ground transportation — Metros, trams, trains, buses, boats, taxis, Ubers, rental cars — than on flying. At some level, that makes sense: We spent more time on the ground than flying. But we are used to thinking of flights as our biggest trip cost.

On a short trip, they surely still are. On a long trip like ours, though, all those ground costs add up in a big but not necessarily predictable way. Muscat, Oman, turned out to be a big city with scant public transit and expensive taxis but great roads and cheap gas; we would have been better off renting a car at the airport and driving ourselves around. Cape Town has cheap and ample public transit/Uber to popular destinations but expensive rental cars and gas; we would have been better off without the car except for a few days to leave town.

Takeaway: Budget more or prepare better for getting around on the ground

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At least we have outgrown using ground transportation for lodging


LESSON #6: The doctor is in and pretty easy/inexpensive to see
Doris saw doctors for three minor issues on the road: a dermatologist in Seville, a travel doctor in Amsterdam and a GP in Cape Town. She also scheduled an appointment with an MD in Nairobi that she had to cancel. In every case, she could get a non-urgent appointment within 48 hours and sometimes the same day she called, all at a fraction of US costs.

What’s more, the physician she saw were more engaged. In Spain, the dermatologist used state-of-the-art digital cancer screening device Doris had never seen in DC to assess a weird spot on her leg. Not liking what he saw, the doc then personally scraped cells from the lesion and examined them under a microscope in his consulting room. (Has anyone ever seen a microscope in their doctor’s office in the States?) Then he prescribed a cream based on what he saw. Altogether, the visit lasted nearly an hour and cost 100€ (about $118 at the exchange rate then), plus 5€ for the over-the-counter med (which worked). In Cape Town, the MD also spent nearly an hour on a routine prescription renewal appointment — and then took Doris’s vitals and did the necessary blood draw himself. Cost? $78, including the lab work (with results back the next day).

A Dutch travel doctor was in the mix because the travel clinic where Doris went for her yellow fever shot back in Virginia said the same shot would cost less than half at the airport in Amsterdam. This proved to be correct, and the airport clinic was a breeze. Doris also ended up replacing lost prescription sunglasses in the Netherlands. She bought an extra pair while she was at it because two sets cost less than one in the States (and were vastly more fashionable). Hmmm….

Takeaway: Give medical tourism a try?

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This is the whiz-bang technology Doris’s Spanish dermatologist used


LESSON #7: Loss and damage are inevitable 
Despite our most diligent efforts to hang onto and take care of our things on the road, and even though every airline delivered our bags unscathed and on the same flights we flew, we lost things.

  • Prescription sunglasses (1 pair, Doris, before our first landing)
  • Non-prescription sunglasses (1 pair, Louis, Dubai)
  • Umbrellas (1 apiece, three guesses in which country)
  • Electrical adapter (1, Doris, left behind in an airport hotel)
  • Dollars (several thousand, both, see Lesson #8)

Things also broke or just plain wore out along the way. Doris’s iPad keyboard gave up the ghost. Louis’s Leica and Doris’s Fitbit both returned home patched up with adhesive tape because of parts that started falling off from constant use. Louis also essentially wore out his passport by adding so many stamps and visas that he ran out of pages and required an emergency replacement mid-trip. As the sign on a dog beach in Cape Town said, poop happens.

Takeaway: Never travel with anything we really care about except each other

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We weren’t the only things that got tired


LESSON #8: “Assumptions are unopened windows that foolish birds fly into”
We were birds with wings but we were foolish birds nonetheless.

It turns out the tourist visa Americans typically rely on to visit the 26 EU countries in the Schengen zone is good for 90 days in a 180-day period. In other words, without a long-stay visa, the window into Europe has its limits.

Based on our erroneous assumption that all we needed to do was step out and back into the EU to reopen the window (an error we learned through freak luck), we were holding tickets and reservations in the Schengen zone for 117 of our 150 days abroad — 27 days too many to be legal. We could have gotten long-stay visas from the Netherlands because of our family ties through Greg, but the Dutch would not consider our application until after we had been out of the Schengen zone for 90 days and were back home.

This was the only real hiccup in our whole adventure, but it was a humdigger and led to the most stressful and expensive lesson of all.

Takeaway: Do thine visa homework

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The red stamp of our fate


LESSON #9: America casts a very, very long (and darkening?) shadow
We are used to sightings of the golden arches on every street corner and American pop music on every public playlist overseas. What was new on this trip were random people coming up to us to ask, “What’s happening to America?” And then finding out they were more than curious, they were really asking, “What’s going to happen to us?”

Citizens of other countries have always followed developments in the United States much more closely than we follow developments in theirs, but we found them following with worried eyes we have not seen before. All those clichés about America being a model of democracy and a mostly trustworthy world policeman turn out to be grounded in the idea that America really is the land of the enviably free and home of the relatively good.

On this trip, people from school children to grandfolk asked us questions like, “Is Donald Trump really crazy, or does he just act that way?” “Will he start a nuclear war?” “Will your Congress stop him?” “Can anyone stop him?”

The personal sense of insecurity and even peril we encountered is perhaps best summed up in the pensive question the physician Doris saw in Cape Town asked her. Part of the reason her appointment ran nearly an hour was that he spent close to 30 minutes grilling her about US political developments. Before finally turning to the prescription matter at hand, he sighed. “America has always been our beacon,” he said. “If that beacon goes out, what hope is there for the rest of us?”

Takeaway: People ask questions we cannot answer
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Also in the rear-view mirror
We added three new items to our packing lists this trip that we will pack forever after because they proved indispensable.

  • Portable chargers: We had to rely on our mobile phones to hold reservations and boarding passes because we didn’t have access to a printer on the road. This made keeping at least one portable phone alive at all times critical. We could not have done it without our portable chargers. They also assured we didn’t have to stop taking pictures halfway through a day of sightseeing because we had exhausted our phones or were ever without GPS.
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  • Portable coffee-maker: Some countries serve nothing but instant coffee, even in luxury hotels. Ugh. We also encountered a couple AirBnB hosts who did not consider coffee essential and provided no means of making it. Hmph. This nifty device, introduced to us by one of our home exchange partners, and a small cache of ground coffee kept us in bold fresh java all the trip long. (It sits on the rim of the cup. Since everyone seems to think tea is essential, there are always cups.)
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  • Grippy socks: Most of the world lives on tile or wood floors, not on wall-to-wall carpeting. Doris’s grippy socks (Abby’s term for socks with sticky pads on the bottom) made sure her famous feet were happy feet — toasty, clean and not flying out from under her regardless of what was under them.
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Coming Next Season: Westward, Ho

If you have a question you wish we had answered, post it as a comment. If there are enough questions, we will post a PS. Otherwise, safe and happy travels of your own till we meet again.

Cape point

 

 

 

 

 

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When in Cape Town

Wine farmsWhen Sicily got scratched from the itinerary because of the great visa snafu, we were already in Africa. Advocates for replacing Italy with Cape Town raved, “Cape Town is the Paris of Africa! It will feel just like Europe!”

After three weeks on the Cape, we can say without reservation: Cape Town does not remotely feel like Paris. Or Europe. It feels exactly like . . .

San Diego.

Seriously. From the minute we stepped off the plane, we were boggled by how familiar nearly every scene and setting were: Sea Point? Pacific Beach. Camp’s Bay or Llandudno? La Jolla. The wine country? Temecula. The Republic of Hout Bay? Cardiff by the Sea or Solana Beach before they went mainstream, with whiffs of equine Rancho Santa Fe.

The resemblance — terrain, foliage, architecture, colors, clothing, surfer culture, seals at the beach — is so uncanny, there were moments when we could identify a twin street in San Diego (where Doris lived and regularly drags Louis). This made for a lot of fun matching games.

For all its familiarity, Cape Town managed to stand on its head Doris’s long-standing aversion to visiting Anglophone destinations colonized by Brits because “Why leave home to go somewhere like home?” The city nestles in the shadow of one of earth’s oldest (and arguably most spectacular urban) mountains and grew up as a “refreshment station” on a sea route that changed the world forever. With all that, plus momentous current events, same old-same old, Cape Town is not.

So, yes, Virginia, there is more to Cape Town than drought, political upheaval and California dreamin’. And, just to prove it here, in living Louis color, are a few of our favorite of the “mother city’s” scenes and sights.


Coastlines

Hwy 101 on steroidsCoastlines like the one above exist all over the world but, in Cape Town, they line up one after another, like endless sets of magnificent earthen waves. Above is a distant glimpse of Hout Bay from the drive to Chapman Peak.


Peaks and Ranges

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If the coastlines don’t take your breath away, the Cape Fold mountains do. Table Mountain, Lion’s Head, the Twelve Apostles, Devil’s Peak, Chapman Peak. From dawn until nightfall, they are craggy shapeshifters, constantly changing color, wrapping themselves in clouds, orienting sailors and landlubbers, anchoring towns and seashores.


Robben Island

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By the time the South African government started using it as a maximum-security prison to incarcerate political prisoners, Robben Island, had been a penal colony for more than 400 years. Now the island is a World Heritage site. This is the cell where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of the 27 years he was imprisoned, a Spartan reminder that freedom does not necessarily come free.


District Six Museum

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The District Six Museum is a memorial to a neighborhood that was bulldozed to make sure none of the 60,000 black and colored residents who were forcibly removed to enforce apartheid could ever return. A parting resident saved the street signs; the “memory cloth” shares embroidered memories of the people who once lived there.


Bo-Kapp

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Formerly called the Malay Quarter for the slaves housed in it, Bo-Kapp’s colored residents celebrated the end of apartheid by painting their houses in the style of their homelands. Now the rainbow neighborhood is gentrifying, and houses like the ones in the photo sell for over half a million U.S. dollars.


Wines and Wine Farms

Wine Barrels

Vineyards (called “wine farms”) do not get more spectacular than those in and around Cape Town, and Partout has visited more than its fair share. That is Beau Constantia at the top of the blog. Throw in $3-$5 flights of wine from bottles retailing for as much as $50/bottle, and tastings don’t get a lot better either.


Gardens

Image-1-2The Cape Floral Region in South Africa is the smallest of the earth’s six distinct vegetation zones and the only one contained in a single country. The zone contains only 0.5% of Africa’s land but 20% of the continent’s flora. Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden in Cape Town is the jewel of the nation’s floral crown.


Long Street

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Reminiscent of San Diego’s Gaslamp District, downtown’s Long Street is where Victorian architecture goes funky and fanciful.


Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCCA)

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Touted as “Africa’s Tate Modern,” Cape Town’s months-old museum of contemporary African art was built into a historic grain silo on the waterfront that, for half a century after its construction in the early 1900s, was the tallest building in sub-Saharan Africa.


V&A (Victoria and Alfred, of course) on the Waterfront

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Victoria & Alfred Waterfront is to Cape Town what Seaport Village is to San Diego, just a whole lot bigger.


Harbour Market at Hout Bay

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We aren’t positive, but we think Hout Bay (officially, the Republic of Hout Bay) may be ground zero for Cape Town’s boho counter-culture. Whatever, the music, food and wonderful local goods at its permanent covered market every Friday night and all day Saturday and Sunday attract locals and visitors alike. They even mesmerized anti-market Louis. Bonus: it was within walking distance of our AirBnB.


The End of a Continent

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San Diego has Point Loma; Cape Town has the Cape of Good Hope. Contrary to popular belief, the Atlantic does not meet the Indian Ocean here, but the end of the continent takes your breath away all the same.


False Bay Beaches

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Once decking the Victorian-era playground of the white, rich and powerful, the Meizenberg and St. James beach huts of all hues on False Bay are now are used by families of all hues and visited by tourists like this one.


Also in the rear-view mirror:

  • Horses: nickering outside the back door of one guest cottage where we stayed
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  • Whales!? As if the trip to Robben Island was not memorable enough, the hour-long ferry ride each way filled with whale (or whale tale) sightings
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  • Sharks: Shark Spotters work to keep surfers and swimmers from becoming shark snacks where the great whites swim
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  • Penguins: We know, we know! Enough with the flightless tuxedo birds! But they are sooo photogenic….
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Coming soon: Road Lessons – the Final Episode

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‘We Have H*O*P*E’

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Rain will eventually come to Cape Town. The water crisis will end, bringing with it lasting infrastructure and policy changes, or not, as the winds of politics and economics blow.

The story that is much older in South Africa and will not blow away any time soon is race and regime.

Statistically, South Africa is considered one of the most economically unequal nations on earth: 10% of the people (nearly all whites, who make up about 10% of the population overall) own 90% of the wealth; 90% of the people (virtually all black or otherwise non-white) own the remaining 10%. Other measures of wealth are similarly skewed.

To us, viewing through the inherent myopia of tourism, inequality along racial lines is, well, pretty black and white. In the upscale restaurants where we eat and the wineries we visit, virtually every customer is white and every server is non-white. Same in museums and most stores and anywhere else that requires discretionary income to enjoy. White patrons, black and other non-white staff; white shift bosses, black workers.
l1210828.jpgAnd then there are the townships, the shack-filled slums that sprawl for miles like the one depicted in the piece of local art above. In much the same spirit that America’s all-white leaders established Indian reservations in the 19th century, South Africa’s all-white leaders in the early 20th century passed laws banning non-whites from living anywhere near them and created “locations” where blacks and coloreds were forcibly moved.

Today, nearly 4 of every 5 South Africans still live in a township. Apartheid (which essentially formalized racial segregation that started much earlier) has ended. Separation and inequality live on.

In the face of this disparity and all the social, public and other ills it brings, Jacob Zuma, the nation’s immediate past president, spent eight years enriching himself and his friends and impoverishing the nation. The direct cost of his years in power is estimated at $83 billion (including a soaring national debt). The moral price of an accused rapist as president, incalculable.

By the time we arrived in Cape Town, South Africa had had enough. Two days after we landed, Zuma resigned under pressure from his own party and in the face of what struck us as universal loathing. Amid a public sigh of relief that was almost audible even to our visiting ears, he was succeeded by Cyril Ramaphosa, his former deputy (vice) president.

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Does the prominent unicorn in the picture imply that reform under Ramaphosa will prove magical? Or imaginary?

Like Nelson Mandela and every South African president since the collapse of apartheid and first democratic elections in 1994, Ramaphosa is a member of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party. He was Nelson’s choice to succeed him but was defeated in his one run for the office, in 1997.

As welcome as he seems, both Ramaphosa and the ANC appear weakened by the eight years of Zuma’s leadership. After all, if the party or the previous vice president really cared about honesty, decency, and the welfare of the nation, a lot of people seem to be asking, wouldn’t they have done something anything about Zuma before now? (Imagine the attitude toward Mike Pence and the GOP after seven more years of closing ranks around Donald Trump whatever investigation, revelation or smarm comes, and you get a sense of the public mood.)

Arriving at such a moment as unreformed newsies, we have been questioning everyone we meet – white and non-white; South African and immigrant; wait staff, museum docents, parking guards, taxi drivers and retail clerks; young and old – how they feel about the change.

Would they describe themselves as “hopeful,” we ask? Or “optimistic”?


Confession: As a teenager when it became South Africa’s official racial policy, Doris struggled to understand apartheid. In east Texas, where her family made regular visits to her father’s hometown, blacks (called “colored” then) were not allowed to use the same bathrooms, water fountains, fast-food order windows or other facilities as whites. Everywhere, Doris saw signs essentially identical to the one at the top of the blog — a relic of apartheid South Africa — minus the Africaaner.

In those days, American blacks rode in the last cars of American trains, sat at the backs of American buses and were widely banned from the schools, hotels, restaurants and other public places whites used. Apartheid seemed to Doris’s teenaged, Beatles-addled brain to be simply the extreme of the racial segregation America itself practiced. Doris eventually sorted the distinctions out, and Brown vs Board of Education Topeka and the Civil Rights Act eventually voided the official bans (like South Africa abolished apartheid). But the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court opened 2018 with three cases on its docket around states redrawing their voter district lines to disenfranchise black voters is just one indication racial equality remains unrealized in America, too. (On the pop culture front, there was the best-picture-nominated horror film Get Out.)

The persistence of issues like these often leaves Doris feeling somewhere between cynical and hopeless about race in America. (Having grown up a Catholic Francophone in a predominantly Protestant Anglophone country where discrimination was rooted more in culture than in race, Quebecois Louis is less discouraged.) If our dozens of conversations in Cape Town are any indication (and we realize they may not be), South Africans are far less jaded.

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Words from a letter written home in the 1980s by a political prisoner at Robben Island


We asked our guide around Robben Island, where he had been imprisoned along with Mandela and other anti-apartheid activists. And Ruth, a septugenarian grandmother whose family was forcibly removed and scattered along with 60,000 neighbors from Cape Town’s District Six. She now tells its stories to District Six Museum tourists.
SuitcaseWe asked Zimbabwian Uber drivers, Xhosan waiters, Africaaners whose people have been here for centuries and Brits whose families have been here nearly as long or for a handful of years. We grilled Alex, the young South African tour guide who led us through Bo-Kapp, the former slave quarter now a trendy hotbed of gentrification, and quizzed Faaera, the grandmother of seven who cooked us a Cape Malaysian meal in her home there.

After a while, we must have looked like human antennae because we could walk into an establishment and literally have someone on the staff start telling us their story and views before we even asked them.

Privately, we wondered what has kept the country from imploding or exploding from impatience and sheer desperation before now. We saw protestors like the ones in the photo below on the streets downtown. There were deadly riots in one township while we were here. A demonstration was announced for Sunday at the harbor immediately below our AirBnB cottage in Hout Bay. When we went for a walk there anyway, a concerned local actually stopped her car, backed up 50 feet to where she had passed us and urged us to leave the area for the day for our own safety. (We kept walking, and the demo turned out to be small and peaceful.)
L1210842If we are reading the local news accurately, the drumbeat for radical measures is, in fact, growing. “The time for reconciliation is over,” the commander-in-chief of the revolutionary socialist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party exhorted South Africa’s Parliament last week. “Now is the time for justice.” Less than four years old, the EFF already holds 6% of the seats in Parliament.

Yet, what we heard on the streets was …

  • Yes, we still have a long way to go,
  • No, racial inequality did not end with apartheid,
  • Yes, it could take generations to get there,
  • No, we are not optimistic, but …

“We have H*O*P*E” in the words of a guard at the Bo-Kapp Museum, spelling it out. “No matter what, we have democracy. Democracy gives us hope for optimism.”

Nelson Mandela famously said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

Whatever inequality remains, apartheid died and democracy was born. This experience of the improbable possible seems to continue breeding hope in South Africans.

We hope with them, for their sake and for ours, too.

Robben guide

The same spirit that makes a former political prison an enduring symbol of freedom and dignity seems to find hope despite inequality

 


In the rear-view mirror:
Alarm and warnings around Cape Town’s water shortage continue to mount in the absence of rain. Just a few since our blog on the crisis:
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  • AirBnB sent an email “to help our community to act responsibly during this drought.” It instructs guests to “follow the direction of local officials” (in bold face) and “make every effort to use water sparingly.”
  • The Washington Post reported on how the Cape Town water shortage is highlighting inequality between the rich and the poor: Divided by Drought.
  • Brookings Institute reported that drought conditions like Cape Town is facing are coming to be seen as the “new normal”: “Day Zero on the Back of Draught in South Africa: Lessons for the Future.”

COMING SOON: When in Cape Town (or, yes, Virginia, there is more to Cape Town than drought and politics)

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Little is black and white except photography. These images hang in Cape Town’s dazzling new Zeitz MOCCA Museum.