Simonstown, the Gibraltar of the Cape; In which civilization barely triumphs over misunderstanding; I hurt my back for no apparent reason; Our Indian visas are finally ready!

We’ve been staying with Joan for a long time now - four of the six weeks we’ve been in the country. She’s been absolutely fantastic, generous and giving and we owe her a lot. I like to think we’re unobtrusive, low-maintenance houseguests. But four weeks is a lot longer than Franklin’s famous three days, and it’s a very long time for three people to be in one small house together. We’d been back from our trip along the Garden Route for ten days, and we reckoned it was time we got out of Joan’s hair again. We couldn’t go far, because we were hoping to hear from the Indian High Commission that our visas were ready very soon, and then we’d need to finalize our rescheduled flight. We decided to head south into the Cape Peninsula to the end of the train line at Simonstown.

Simonstown reminded me of Gibraltar. It used to be the home of the British Navy in South Africa in colonial days. It’s now the home of the South African navy, but, like, Gibraltar, still shows a very strong British influence. It’s charming little place with lots of shops and a nice beach across the bay from the naval base. It was strange seeing all the navy ships lurking docked across the water, all painted in that eye-wrenching blue-grey colour they use for camouflage. It’s very touristy, though, being a stop on the tour-bus circuit, and so everything there is disproportionately expensive.

We took a room at the town’s only hostel, a nice open building. We could have taken dorm beds, but the place was nearly empty and Sheryl haggled the owner into giving us a private room for the price of two dorm beds (which weren’t that expensive in the first place, really). We relaxed for a couple of days doing nothing much except hang out on the beach. We built a snowman in honour of the folks back home and the terrible winter they’re having right now.

Beach snowman

Two unpleasant things did happen in Simonstown. Our first night there, Sheryl was very tired and left her bag out on the balcony of the common room when we went in to bed. When she discovered it missing there was the usual panic moment (I hate that feeling) and we ran around looking for it. When we found it, it was sitting on the table, open. She may or may not have left it that way herself, but the first thing she did on seeing it was to go through it and make sure everything was there. Well, it’s what you do, isn’t it? Nothing strange about that. Only, her camera wasn’t in the bag. I ran back to the room to check if it was there, which it was, so I went back to tell her so and walked right into the middle of an altercation. She and one of the hostel staff were going at it. Sheryl was very tired and upset and had assumed that her camera was gone. It hadn’t crossed her mind that the guy had taken it - she’d was only making noises about how she couldn’t imagine why someone would have taken such a beaten-up old camera. But he was reacting as if she’d accused him of stealing it point-blank and was defensively overreacting, demanding to know why she’d assumed it was stolen and why that was the first thing she’d thought of and why the first thing she’d done was to go through the bag to see if anything was missing. I could see immediately that the conversation was a train wreck and would turn really nasty if it wasn’t stopped right away, so with no regard for politeness I barged into the middle of it, broke it up and took Sheryl off to the room.

Sheryl tried to make amends in the morning. The guy eventually accepted her quasi-apology - grudgingly given, because she hadn’t really done anything wrong and had only offended him accidentally. He had, in fact, taken it that she was accusing him of stealing her camera at least implicitly. He’s got a huge chip on his shoulder and made her stand for a lecture on how hard it is to not be white in South Africa and how white people are always assuming you’re a criminal. My sympathies were with him until he finished off with “and I’m coloured, it’s not like I’m even black!” Coloured is a term it’s taken me two months to learn not to get my back up over - here it means someone of mixed black and white ancestry. So he was effectively saying that he may be coloured, but at least he isn’t black. It’s things like this that leave a bad taste in my mouth about South Africa. He was a nice enough guy, and I can see very clearly how that chip got on his shoulder, but, well, we may be white but we’re not white South Africans and don’t share their prejudices. Surely the point of working in a hostel is so that you don’t have to deal with as many South Africans? I think that’s the problem, though - he’d learned to let his guard down in the hostel and Sheryl’s reaction struck him badly and he misinterpreted. It didn’t help that he himself had had a computer and iPod stolen from him in a hostel a little while ago. What a mess.

The other unpleasant thing was entirely mine. I’m still not sure how it happened, but I threw my back out on the morning of the second day we were in Simonstown. I wasn’t doing anything weird or strenuous - I was, actually, carrying milk and bread back from the shop for breakfast, walking down the perfectly level sidewalk. I have no explanation for the sudden clenching agony where my lowest ribs join with the spine. It laid me out flat nearly all day, though - I couldn’t walk or stand up. I don’t have back problems, this only happens to me once every few years. Fortuitously, my sainted mother had sent Sheryl some magic back-pain medication in the package with our replacement birth certificates just after Christmas and she had some of them with her. Clearly they weren’t non-drowsy, though, because they put me out for seven hours and I didn’t see daylight until five o’clock in the evening. I’m a bit scared of them now and haven’t taken any since then. It improved some each day since, but it took three days to really stop hurting. I wish I knew what I’d done to make it happen, so that I could not do it ever again.

So that was our second day in Simonstown more or less wasted. We did walk out to the penguin colony in the evening and visit with them a bit. They’re very patient and let you get really close before they start doing the head-weaving I’m going to eat your face off motion. Half of the third day was wasted too, but for a much better reason. We’d been getting increasingly nervous about our Indian visas with every passing day. The High Commission had had our applications (and passports!) for ten days now and we hadn’t heard from them. Visas take two working days for South Africans and up to five for foreign nationals, we’d been told in the beginning, and the High Commission would contact us when they were available. There was a little status-checking tool on their website that you could enter your passport number and it would tell you if your visa was ready, but I had no faith in it and suspected it wasn’t being fed any data at all. I thought there was a strong possibility that they’d tried to call us at Joan’s to tell us they were ready, but since Joan’s phones were still out we had no way of knowing if they’d called or left a message. The website of the High Commission said that telephone inquiries wouldn’t be answered but that emails would, but I had sent an email and got no reply. The time was approaching when we had to book a flight, and I personally was sick of not knowing what was going to happen. I finally lost my patience and called, only to be told that they’d been ready for five days. I wonder if they could hear my teeth grinding over the phone?

Still, this was a good thing. I immediately started making arrangements with DHL to pick up the passports in Johannesburg and get them back to Cape Town. I’d done this before, getting them from Pretoria. That had been touch-and-go, and I knew DHL in South Africa were a bunch of incompetents, but they were still the most reliable game in town. I knew all about the authorization letters they’d need and the payment form they’d need - I knew all that stuff, so I had it ready to email before I called for the pickup. Even so they nearly managed to screw it up - Joan called us at 4 that day saying that DHL had called her (as the delivery contact) saying that they needed an authorization letter. I was fuming - I’d sent them a bloody authorization letter, I’d even read it to the agent over the phone to make sure it was okay. I swore I’d go through the roof if they’d lost it and I had to send it again, costing us a day because it would be too late to pick up that day. But all was well - they called again two minutes later to say that they now had the letter, that their system had been down but had miraculously just come up again just in time. If I keep grinding my teeth I’m going to have to see a dentist in India.

If we really, truly get there, that is. We’ve had to jump through so many hoops to do it that it still hardly seems real. One more hoop to jump through though - we need a flight. I won’t believe we’re going until I’m holding my passport in my hand as we leave the airport in Chennai. Last we checked there was still space on the flight of the 9th. We can’t finalize that booking until I’ve heard from Joan that the passports have arrived and have visas inside them, though.


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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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