Men have always strove to build cars that transcend imagination, like the Audi with its four rings that promises to wring all the pleasure from life. Or the Volvo, a sure sign that God only wishes us nothing but safety. The Jaguar, a perilously curvaceous car that was built nude, and has always remained nude in our eyes. Or the Range Rover – my first true love, you won’t find a more orgasmic machine. With these fine machines, man continually proves that luxury will always be borderless.
But the one car that doesn’t have any disclaimer, chokes debates before they start, silences cynics and herds admires into a lifelong cult, is the Mercedes. Even the name sounds highbrow. Like it belongs in a family lords. And it does.
And it’s this car – a Mercedes E200 (2011) – that soundlessly pulls over at the underground parking of Johannesburg’s OR Tambo Airport last Saturday. Sleethingly black. Long. Sleek. Gleamy. Gratified. Hot!
This is how South Africa Tourism folks pick up their guests. This is how they show you that they woke up on the good side of their beds. And their guests are myself and two lovely ladies; Susan Wong from Capital FM and Njeri Chege from Hill and Knowlton Strategies, the PR that put this small media shindig together.
So we, while desperately clinging on our suitcases, stare at the Mercedes for a bit as she stands there on the asphalt, massive wheels turned against the pavement, waiting there like the thoroughbred machine it is. This particular one is so damn sexy it looks like it frequently gets a body scrub. A car that steams and buys products only from Body Shop. And from its dark gleaming body, we see our awestruck reflections. OK, I couldn’t see my reflection since I’m not as light as the two ladies, but I could see small set of white; my grinning teeth.
Because the Mercedes is a woman, because she’s a delicate genteel woman of sound statue and esteem, she deserves to be handled by someone who understands the mild method of womanhood. Which means she deserves to be driven by another woman. And no, the Mercedes isn’t a lesbian.
So I’m not surprised when the driver’s door swings open and a woman steps out. Our guide. She’s called Dumisile Mamsusulu. She’s Zulu. Her name, Dumisile, means “praise.” She was born after a long line of boys. She says we can call her Dumi, and why not, Dumi is a strong name, a name that befits her smile, a smile larger than the Mercedes’s trunk, which now swallows all our suitcases. I ride shotgun, the legroom of this car is so endless my legs literally disappear.
Dumi likes listening to 95.9 Kaya FM, which is like our Classic FM, but without the presenters who feel bigger than the establishment. Old school jams filter out of the car’s, sorry, Mercedes’s superior sound system as we snake through the early dusk of Johzi evening.
Hey Gang. How’z it? Are we all right? It’s been a few weeks since I was here. Si you know how it is? Work. Life. All that familiar brouhaha. But High School remains open amidst all that hoo-ha; we still serve dinner at 6pm and go for games at 4:15pm. Tell a friend.
I’m going to decant this media trip into days. I’m going to skip some parts, not because they weren’t important but because I have a word count here. So pithy and garnished with right sauce. Have you seen someone try to thread a needle? That’s how I’m going to present this trip. Belt up.
DAY ONE, Johannesburg.
We are stay at 54 and Bath. That’s a very posh boutique hotel on Rosebank, one of the top exclusive addresses in town. There are hotels then there is 54 on Bath. I don’t mean to come across as showy but in my line of work I’m lucky to visit some of the most high-end properties, what this means it’s easier to disappoint me than to impress me. I was very impressed by Bath. I really was, there was something about that place that was beyond luxury. Have a look.
The problem with being guests of new countries is that they will want to show you the good side. The side that doesn’t have warts. Like how we whisky our tourists straight from JKIA to Sankara then to Carnivore for Ostrich Balls on the stick, then up the road to KWS to stare at a monkey then off to Mara, Watamu, Tsavo, then back to JKIA. After that they will be gushing how gorgeous Kenya is enchanting and how they were pleasantly surprised by Nairobi. Which misses the whole point. When I visit a country, I want to see how the other side lives.
Rosebank was great but what I really wanted to see was Soweto Township. The girls agreed that we all go have drinks in Soweto at night. So Dumi obliged and swung the Merc to Soweto. Only it rained like hell as we desperately looked for parking at some shebeen called Chaf Pozi, (means “burn meat”). Even with entrance fee Chaf Pozi was jam-packed. I noticed one thing; folk in Township dress better than all the folk in Kile put together. I’m not hating, the fashion sense is admirable.
We couldn’t find seating, or even space to stand. Getting drinks at the bar was hard, so we left to have a bite on the historic Shakhumuzi Restaurant Vilakazi street’s, just next door to where Bishop Tutu’s house stands and down the road from where fight against apartheid gained traction when that boy Hector was shot.
DAY TWO, Cape Town
Cape Town. The jewel of SA. In 2004, the revered writer AA Gill wrote in Vanity Fair “ If only you knew Cape Town, then the rest of Africa would come as a shock. If you only know the rest of Africa then Cape Town will be a big, unnerving surprise. Nothing feels African.”
I remember asking this old-ish chap in Cape Malay, the neighbourhood known for its extraordinary fusion of Asian soul food and African ingredients if he has ever visited Kenya and he said deadpan, “ No, I haven’t been to Africa.” He said it earnestly without the tiniest tinge of malice and it underscored Gill’s quote up there.
Cape Town, as compared to, say Nairobi, is like a roommate with OCD. Everything is just right, everything seem to work. Everything is where it’s supposed to be. The air is fresh, less people walk in the street and if they came to Kenya and saw our downtown, they would quickly rename their downtown. The sky is bluer in Cape Town even though their sea is colder. To our credit, less people smile in Cape Town as compared to Nairobi. Maybe it’s because Cape Town can get windy and have you tried smiling in the wind lately?
Oh, and they wash the streets at night. With soap and water. You could unwrap a pizza and eat it off the tarmac on Long Street.
Driving in Cape Town is a study in discipline. Our guide (now chauffeuring us in a BMW 320i) even stopped at streetlights at 1am when there was absolutely no car in sight. I sighed silently, the Kenyan in me finally coming out.
Later that day, Wong wanted to see Penguins. Yes, Penguins! I think penguins are as beautiful as burnt toast. OK, that’s animal cruelty, I take that back. Penguins are sweet, but I’m not an animal person, to mean I don’t find Lions enigmatic (unless they are mating) or I wouldn’t go to the Maasai Mara to watch the wildebeest migration. That’s just me. But Wong hadn’t turned her nose at going to Soweto, so I why not go see her penguins as well?
To see Penguins we drove an hour away, by the lovely white windswept, beaches to Simon’s Town on False Bay. How do I describe Simon’s Town? Driving through Simon’s Town is like driving through a postcard. It’s a town that looks like a set in a car commercial; quaint, swanky, prim and very picturesque. We had lunch at Seaforth Restaurant, a seafront eatery that’s big on seafood. Then after we went to see Wong’s penguins at Boulders Penguin Colony, the closest place you can get to penguins anywhere in the region. There, our guide told us a hilarious true story about this Chinese tourist who was stopped at the exit of Boulders as he tried to smuggle out a Penguin in his bag. “Yes,” Wong said laughing, “That sounds like us.”
So, the whole time, I kept a close eye on her and her purse, which to me looked suspiciously big enough to carry out two penguins. I could imagine the headlines the next day:
“Kenya’s Capital FM, food critic, Susan Lucky Wong, caught smuggling out Penguins. Presumably to stir fry.”
“Luck runs on out of Lucky Wong when she is caught with a Penguin.”
“I thought they were free!” Pleads Wong.
Or, above a picture of a bemused Wong in handcuffs, “It’s Wrong!”
We sat in jail in Roben Island. About 40 us. Before us was a former political prisoner, jailed in 1977, just when I was being born. Amidst the backdrop of the stony silence in the room he spoke about those dark ages, his voice reverberating in the bare sanitized room. Beyond, you could hear the waves crash on the island.
His deep voice unearthed the ghosts of apartheid and turned the men now dead freedom fighters in their graves. He rolled out names of now departed gallant men who fought for their country with their lives and when he got to Steve Bantu Biko, I almost shot up from my seat and shout, “present, sir!”
Robin Island can be depressing, especially when you hear of the gory tales of suffering. Or of the lepers who were thrown there, to die, and whose children we forcefully taken away from them. Or of seeing Nelson Mandela’s cell, which was smaller than the kennels the prison guards used to house their dogs. Robben Island might bring tears to your eyes, but that’s not their intention. Their intention is to remind you that, “ The journey’s never far when freedom’s the destination.”
The last time I was in Cape Town, a large cloud settled on top of Table Mountain, so we couldn’t go up. Luckily, this time we did. I’ve always wanted to go up. What the table mountain does is that from up there you get to view Cape Town the way God does. And you know he’s got the best seats.
Dinner was at Servruga, a very sleek seafront fine dining restaurant. The chap who waited on us was a chap called Peter. Exceedingly effusive. Undeniable professional. When Njeri asked him what the Springbok on the menu was he gladly and patiently explained. And when Njeri wasn’t sure just how sweet their red wines were, he came to our table thrice with three different bottles for her to taste. So we asked him what his story was and he talked about backpacking on a shoestring from SA to Egypt at 20 (he’s 30 now).
Peter waits on tables to work his way through his MBA. It posed a question to us; just how many of us would wait tables at Sevens Restaurant at ABC after campus as we wait for “our” job to come by? How many by a show of hands? Put your hand down, Butterscotch.
So we go Quad Biking up in the gorgeous pine pricked mountain of Grabouw-Elgin Valley. Yes, it’s as gorgeous as the name suggests. It’s an hour-plus out of Cape Town. “You got to handle the bikes aggressively,” we are told ones we get there. So we set off and drive out into the unique wonders of the Cape Floral Kingdom, with myself really trying hard to act like I just looove fauna.
The guy who runs the company- nature discovery- is leading, I follow close second, Wong is behind me, closely trailed by Njeri and lastly our Cape Town guide Shameen, him of dry wit. A cool cat. Now we were doing very well – the sun was out etc – until we started taking this corner when Njeri lost control of her bike and plunged in a ragged ditch.
At first I heard a yelp, but I thought it was a deer. When I turned I saw her, falling over the bike – in slow motion, like in the matrix – head first into the ditch, like it was sooo hot and all she was looking for was somewhere to dive in for a swim. I’m not supposed to be making fun of someone’s tragedy but really; I’m already half way.
So we all slam on the brakes and scamper from our bikes and run to her. In short, she had a broken arm. Snapped at the wrist. I saw the wrist swell right before my eyes, like it had baking powder. But she didn’t cry, Njeri. Nobody cried. A few thought about it though.
Her absence was felt when she was whisked away in an ambulance to the hospital for treatment. How’z the cast, Njeri?
But you know what? Not even a broken arm can stop a woman from shopping. Our last night was meant for shopping in Canal Walk, a 2km long mall that goes on and on and on like energizer bunny. Women can shop armless if need be. Or even blind. All they need to do is feel and smell then swipe their cards. Because of spending time at the hospital we only had two hours before the malls closed at 9pm.
And so here is my impression of how men and women shop.
Man walks into a shop.
Man: I’m looking for handcuffs.
Shop Guy: Excuse me?
Man: Yes. Cuffs, man.
SG: Oh, ahem. This way, sir.
Man: Do you have it in blue?
SG: Yes, and in pink if you like.
Man: Nah, I’m a blue guy.
Guy buys cuffs walks out of shop, out of the mall and goes and lives happily ever after.
Woman walks into a shop with girlfriend.
Girl 1: So Johnny thinks I can believe that bullshit story he fed me jana, ati sijui he was too drunk to drive home. Aii!
Girl 2: Please. Let him try another one.
G1: I like this purse in blue, but I wish it were in red. I bought these other red shoes in Dubai and I haven’t had anything to go with them.
G2: (To Shop Attendant “ST”) Excuse me? Excuse me? Hi? Do you have this in red?
ST: No, sorry, it’s only in yellow and white. But you could check out these other ones here.
They all look at “these other ones” and shake their heads.
G2: So was he drunk?
G1: Who, the shop attendant?
G1: No, Johnny.
G2. He walked in at 8am, smelling terrible!
G1: (Sighs) Men!
Shop Attendant: (Stifles a smile.) Ladies, is there anything in particular you are looking for?
G1: Do you have sundresses?
SA: Certainly, please, this way.
They look at a few then hung them back again. Eyes go to heels.
G2: Ah, I love these heels!
G1: Aii, lakini I wish their were open toes.
SA: We have them in open toes. Just a moment.
He brings back open toes.
G2: (Fitting) Naah, they don’t feel right.
G1: Yes, so anyway, I told him to sod off. Ati he was there asking if there are eggs.
G2: What eggs? As in, like your eggs? Like he wanted migwatos, is Johnny mad?
G1: No sweetie, he wanted breakfast. (To shop attendant) Can I see that purse again?
SA: The blue one you had seen earlier?
G1: Yes, please.
SA: Certainly ma’am.
Purse is brought. G1 opens it up.
G1: Ah, it’s not so spacious as I thought…
To SA Tourism, it was fun. Thanks. To Njeri and Wong, you guys were absolute darlings. To Dumi and Shameen, as Idi Amin used to say “we shall revenge when you come down to Nairobi!”
And as you all say in Afrikaans: Baie dankie en God seën