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Good-bye East London

I wake up early and finish packing. Craig is at work and it’s impossible not to tour the flat at the Kennaway without whispering good-byes. Though the  past weeks have been full of jocular assertions that I will return – certainly for the World Cup in 2010! – I don’t know how realistic that is. Good-bye jacuzzi tub, good-bye Dennis Fistofassholes, good-bye depressing penguins at the East London aquarium.

I have a couple hundred rand left in my pocket. It’s a grey day, windy and spitting rain, but the vendors are out on the waterfront. I buy a wooden spoon from a woman who asks me to take her to Canada. She is out here every day beading bracelets and carving pieces of wood into mantle-sized elephants and baboons. Good-bye waterfront vendors.

The local Spar (grocery) is not very big but they have what I am after. O.B. tampons cost about 2 bucks a pack here; I clear the shelf, and throw in five tubes of Sensodyne. The checkout woman does a double-take and I wonder what kind of affliction she is imagining I labour under. I walk back through the parking lot.  Two men are asleep, spooning on the grass under the sign for the fitness centre. Good-bye.

Though Craig is not scheduled to take me to the airport until early afternoon, he shows up at the Kennaway at 11am. “D’you wanna go for lunch before we head out?” We load my bags into the BMW and grab a bite at the Red Tree Tea House, a cafe that’s full of antiques and really weird art. Normally we’d indulge ourselves and skewer the misshapen Jesus with six fingers… but there’s not a lot left to say, now. I hate long good-byes. We pay up and drive to the airport. Good-bye Debonairs Pizza, good-bye parking lot guys, good-bye magic bank machine (you were the only one in East London that would give me money).

Craig parks and comes inside, claiming that he wants to make sure my bag isn’t overweight. Liar. I check in (good-bye 1Time) and we walk to security. Awkwardly, Craig thanks me for coming to visit and we hug. I turn to him abruptly and say, “I don’t want to make this a big thing…” God, I can be lame sometimes but there it is: Good-bye, Lady Kennaway.

Click on a thumbnail for a closer look:

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Cape Town, yes; Evan, no

Remember Evan? Well he’s dead to me.

Dead to me?

Dead to me?

No, not really. How could you hate this face? But unfortunately he is unable to drive the Garden Route with me, so I have made a new plan. On October 9 I am flying on my new favourite airline 1time.co.za to meet up with Craig’s friend Mike, from Cape Town. I will stay with Mike for the weekend, and Craig will join us on Sunday. We’ll explore Cape Town until Thursday October 15, when we’ll fly back to East London.

We are planning on visiting Boulders Beach where there is a penguin colony, including a healthy population of Jackass penguins (so-called for the braying noises they make). I may have found my new term of endearment for lovely Lady Kennaway. Speaking of penguins and the Kennaway, the East London aquarum is across the street from us, featuring an outdoor penguin cage. It houses 20 or 30 of the most depressed-looking penguins I have ever seen. I went and poked my head over the rail to see them, and there they were, vacantly staring into the corners, motionless. We are considering an effort to set them free. I am not sure if I have ever seen anything as forlorn as a depressed penguin.

It stared into the corner the entire time I was there.

It stared into the corner the entire time I was there.

Update: as it turns out, there is indeed a vision as forlorn as a depressed penguin, and conveniently, it is located at the very same aquarium.

White Pelican...in a cage overlooking the Indian Ocean. There are two of them in there.

White Pelican...in a cage overlooking the Indian Ocean. There are two of them in there.

Also on the agenda for Cape Town is a shark dive. Apparently you can submerge in a shark cage (DANGER!) off the coast of Cape Town without a SCUBA license (DANGER!): sounds like an irresistible double dose of African DANGER.

I am excited, and also sincerely hope to cross paths with Evan again. Evan – when you are ready to continue our conversation about bringing open source to the South African school system, contact me.

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Mpongo

And here is what I wake up to:

East London

East London

OK, I am so down with this.

They let us out on the tarmac (I wonder: Am I the only one who loves this? It makes me want to dress like Jackie O., but only for as long as it takes to get down the stairs) and we walk into the airport building to collect our luggage at the baggage claim.

I swear this is true: someone has a George Foreman Grill on the baggage claim and I try to snap a picture of it but just as I line it up, a woman’s arm reaches out and snatches it off the carousel.

By the time my bag comes around the area is three people deep. I have to carry the wheelie at chest level and step over the luggage carts to get out. I walk through the doors at the end and there is Craig.

Craig is boyish, blonde, exuberant, and engaged. As I step through the crowd he is smiling. “You’re in Africa! Do you want to go see some animals?” Um, yeah! We walk outside to the parking lot. East London is sunny and green and the air is salty. He leads me to a white BMW and I think, Are you kidding me? He’s not. We hop in and we’re off. Craig drives me directly from the airport to the Mpongo Game Reserve.

Click on the thumbnails to get a closer look:

After a couple of hours of picnicking and photographing, I am feeling a bit knackered. Plus, Craig is spooked because we saw monkey poo in the (onsite) toilets and heard crashing in the brush. We decide to leave the park and head back to the apartment. “I should warn you about the place before we get there,” Craig says evenly. “I live in total squalor.”

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Next stop, Africa

Thirty-five minutes later I arrive back at Heathrow. I find a clock and am startled to discover that I am expected at security forthwith. I hurry to the queue and when it is my turn, I step forward. The security officer barks out that I ought to remove my laptop from the bag, place change or belts in the bin, and am I wearing high heels?  I look down at myself, and then meet her eyes and laugh, “No, but wouldn’t it be funny if I were?” She has the decency to smile indulgently (no doubt she’s seen more tipplers than I wobble through the x-ray) and I head towards the gate.

I have replaced one soggy tube sock with the curiously tight British Airways flight sock when my seat row is called. I realize with a start that a single half-pint more and I might have missed my flight. I board, and am delighted to discover that I have somehow won the seat lottery. I have the window directly behind a bulkhead, which means more leg room than my tiny stature can possibly use. On the down side, the air conditioning is on and in my sopping outfit I am all shivery. I sit down and tear open the gossamer flight blanket. I can feel the pull of unconsciousness despite my frigid extremities so I put on the eyeshades and instantly slip into a frozen and fitful sleep.

Minutes later I am brought back to consciousness by the rustling of my seatmates. Using only my sense of hearing I can detect that in the aisle seat we have a little old lady who is mostly blind. She is going to South Africa to visit her son and has a jolly demeanor. In the centre seat is a man with a calm and helpful voice. Helpful Man helps Little Old Mostly Blind Lady get buckled in, and then shows her how to use the attendant call button. Moments pass; I drift. The drink cart swings by and our flight attendant asks Little Old Mostly Blind Lady and Helpful Man if they’d like a drink (she refuses; he’d like a gin and tonic). I hear pouring and then the attendant asks Helpful Man if his son would like anything. Beneath my eye shades my eyes open wide in amusement. Helpful Man enunciates clearly: “I have never met that woman in my life. “ And then, in the spirit of even more helpfulness, he states, “I am travelling alone.”

If I had a tagline it might be “Gender-jamming since 1970”. In fact, my ability to confound age- and gender-radar caused me a bit of stress leading up to this trip. The anxiety was sparked when, months ago, I rode my newly-purchased motorcycle to my friend Francis’ house. He came out on the stoop just as I was parking. Ten paces down the block a man was approaching. I dropped the kickstand and waved to Francis. The man, now five paces away, looked at me still in my helmet. He pointed. “Are you a man or a woman,” he demanded in a thick African accent. On the stoop Francis was falling over with laughter. I removed my helmet and stared at him. Again, and this time louder, the man said, “Are you a man or a woman!” I unzipped my leather jacket. The man kept walking past, turning back to stare, his eyes still seeking an answer to this essential question.

Francis, being the sensitive friend that he is, has insisted on breaking out a thickly accented “Are you a man or a woman!” every time my gender comes into question. In other words, pretty much every time we see each other. Before I left, he told me, “You’ll be getting a lot of that in Africa.” Apparently I will be getting a lot of that wherever in the world I go. Indeed, at Heathrow and in the pubs of Hammersmith, I am referred to as “mate”, “bloke”, and “sir”, and now here on the plane I am mistaken for Son of Helpful Man. Awake and freezing, I lift the eyeshades and ask the attendant for a cup of tea. Little Old Mostly Blind Lady follows suit. The attendant shrugs as if to say “What will they think of next?” and tells me it can be arranged. While he is away arranging the nearly-impossible spot of tea during the cocktail hour, I ask Helpful Man if I can borrow his flight blanket. He agrees, but I am bereft to discover that the warmth of gossamer squared is nil. The attendant returns with two cups of tea. Helpful Man assists Little Old Mostly Blind Lady when he sees that she is using the tube of sugar as a stir stick. She says, “It’s really quite chilly in here, isn’t it?” and the two of us cup our hands around the paper mugs like rubbies at a barrel fire.

When I wake up, there is an African sunrise out my window.

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Everybody say “U.K.”

I have never flown British Airways before and I must say that it was everything that I expected: cute accents, tea and biscuits, and a safety video as funny as Benny Hill. On BA they don’t make their stewards submit to carrying out an embarrassing pantomime about the unlikely event of a crash – World Travellers, Plus, Club, and First alike just watch a video on the in-seat telly. “In the unlikely event…” The British accent makes a world of difference. I am almost disappointed that the event is so unlikely. “…Make sure you are in the crash-ready position.” On the screen a computer-animated commoner in World Traveller class bends forward and protects her head with her arms. “And those in First Class sleeper berths should fold their arms like this.” The First Class traveller is pictured lying down, arms folded across his chest Nosferatu-style, as though any minute he will rise from the sleeper, stiff and straight as an ironing board. The voice asserts that all travellers are reminded to remove their high heels before flinging themselves onto the slide, and then I know some art director somewhere is having a laugh because we see the World Traveller woman step out of the plane onto the slide, followed by the First Class passenger, his arms still crossed over his chest like a zombie. Nobody else must be watching because it is my laughter alone that rises from seat 49A to fill the rear of the plane.

The flight to London from Toronto is just a bit too short. Yes, you read that right. Six and a half hours is long enough to board, have a laugh, have a bite, and fall asleep – for about 240 minutes. And then you’ve arrived in London where everything is the same but totally different, which can be a dangerous level of dissimilarity when operating on about four hours’ sleep. As I disembark, the flight attendant thanks me for flying with British Airways but her accent – like wind chimes, which makes me think she’s Welsh – completely obscures the words. I follow the signs but become confused when I see a corridor marked for those seeking asylum. I decide to ask, and the women at the gate raises her eyebrows and says, “Aye ‘tis a good thing ye asked! ‘Ad ye gone through this gate it would’ve been nigh impossible to get back.” She directs me to another queue. I am called to the front where a devastatingly handsome customs agent asks me where I am going. I tell him that I have a layover until my flight that evening, and that I am going to get a cup of coffee. “There is coffee on this side.” His manner becomes suspicious. “You don’t have to come through emigration to get a cup of coffee.” I tell him I am meeting a friend for coffee and his face darkens. “That,” he spits, “is a different story than you just told.” I decide to say nothing – the customs equivalent of rolling over onto your back to show submission – and after scrutinizing my passport, he lets me through to find Roxy and a coffee.

As I don’t have to pick up my luggage, I am at a bit of a loss as to where to go. I decide to find a bathroom and consider the matter. I follow the signs and quickly find a door with a woman figure above it. The door is monolithic. It is a single slab of polished wood with neither handle nor pushbar. From the safe distance of a few yards I inspect it, but cannot see how it opens. With a quick glance over my shoulder to make sure I am unobserved, I walk up to the door and stand before it, hoping that it will swing open to allow me passage to the toilets. I wait. I wave a tentative hand across the front, thinking it might be motion-sensitive. And then I leave, defeated by this example of fine British engineering.

I carry on down the hallway, and by this time almost all other people have left the terminal. I am mostly alone and I snap a few pictures of the interior of Heathrow, terminal 5. It is marvellous. Terminal 5 is the newest terminal at Heathrow and in places it is still under construction, but where it is complete it is an architectural love poem to human strength and that sassy British sensibility that brought us James Bond.

Metal men rise from the basement concourse to hold up the sky.

Metal men rise from the basement concourse to hold up the sky.

As I walked down this hallway, I could almost hear boom chicka wah wah and it made me swing my ass around a bit more than was necessary.

As I walked down this hallway, I could almost hear boom chicka wah wah and it made me swing my ass around a bit more than was necessary.

By this time, I really have to pee so I scan the sparse crowd until I find another uncomfortable-looking woman. Sure enough, she is surveying the area and soon heads off towards a doorway marked “toilet”. I quickly fall into step behind her, keen on gaining entrance by using her as a foil. She steps up to the monolith confidently, and places her palms on the door. She pushes it and it opens.

A few moments later I leave the toilets, relieved of my full bladder and my dignity.

I have a little over an hour until I’m supposed to meet Roxy, so I walk up to a man wearing a snappy uniform and say, “Excuse me – I heard a rumour that there are showers here in Heathrow. Can you tell me how I can get to them?” He smiles and replies, “Are you eligible?” I consider the matter. He is quite handsome and has an easy, open face. Then, “Show me your boarding pass.” I realize what he’s after and say, “Right – I am World Traveller class.” We each smile and shake our heads ruefully. “Yes, the showers are not for people like us,” he chuckles, plucking at the lapel of his uniform.

I find the Costa coffee kiosk where I had arranged to meet Roxy, order a large latte which instantly makes me nauseous, and settle in to wait. It is good people watching and the time flies. It is always odd seeing someone out of context, and when Roxy walks down the concourse I have that uneasy feeling of dislocation. We decide to leave the terminal and find a pub (what else?) The people at information claim there is no worthy watering hole between here and Hammersmith, so I buy my day pass for 7 pounds fifty and we get on the Tube.

I love the Tube. First of all, I love that it really looks and feels like a tube. It is retro and futuristic all at once, and you can’t help but mind everyone else’s business when your knees and rubbing against theirs across those impossibly narrow aisles. During our ride we catch up on soccer gossip, both hers (she’s regularly playing with a women’s pick-up kickabout group) and mine (Toronto’s August was more like Bali’s February and monsoon rains stole much of season; the City worker’s strike neatly choked off the rest).

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Checking in, checking out

I just checked in online using the British Airways web site. From a user interface perspective, the developers did a stellar job and I found the process to be efficient and clear.

I logged in and was a quite chuffed to discover that BA acknowledged my jet-setting ways by referring to me as a “World Traveller”:

It's nice when one's efforts at fabulousness are recognized, don't you think?

It's nice when one's efforts at fabulousness are recognized, don't you think?

I added my passport details, checked in, chose my seats, and printed my boarding passes. It wasn’t until the final screen that I discovered that “World Traveller” is a ticket class, and the lowest one at that. World Travellers occupy the bottom rung of the air travel ladder, under First Class, Club, and even the unimaginatively-named World Traveller Plus. I would suppose that if you are going to pay the surcharge to fly in a class NOT World Traveller, you’d want a name that distinguishes you from the commoners… it’s bad enough that you have to share the cabin with them. Might I suggest “Gentleman Class”?

Intrigued, I decide to investigate. In terms of in-flight entertainment, only the First Class passengers get special treatment with a whopping 20 movies to choose from. And let’s be clear, here: of the paltry selection of seven for the rest of us, the only one that I am remotely excited about is The Hangover. It’s going to be a long, Gravol-y flight to London.

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Wash it fold it eye it pack it judge it purge it quick – unpack it

Why is packing impossible? In any given five weeks at home I am sure I wear the same four outfits over and over again, but as soon as I have to put them in a bag I am inspired to bust out some new look I’ve been thinking of rocking. Add to it the dumb notions of what might be appropriate wherever I’m going and suddenly I’m carrying on (to the cats, natch) about whether people style their jeans skinny or baggy in South Africa, and should I wear my Puma shoes as an homage to the local wildlife, and should I costume myself as somebody’s dad and wear a ridiculous Tilly hat and a pocket vest in neutrals.

And just when you’ve got the math right (the ratio of pants to shorts must be divided by the sum of your smalls to the power of your tees), you have to handle toiletries. I’d like to believe that if the airlines hadn’t made toiletries verboten I would be able to travel the world in a single carry on. Not to mention the added stress of having to register and obtain licenses for all of my nail clippers, tweezers, and liquids over 100ml. The paperwork on that alone is beastly, but added to the various insurance documents, plane tickets, and my passport I am actually considering buying a travel wallet. You know, one of those leatherette dossiers that make you look like Robert Wagner in Hart to Hart? I always loved the part of the opening credits when he and Mrs. Hart wake up in their giant king sized bed and the camera pans out to reveal that they’re on the back of a flatbed truck, presumably being driven to their demise by bad guys. Such adventure!

Then there’s the baggage type: pack, wheely, or duffel? Regular readers know I’ve borrowed a backpack for the trip, but those who know me well won’t be surprised to learn that that is not the end of it. Oh no, I could decide to go wheely – and back again – several times between now and my departure. Obviously the aforementioned Canadian Tire wheelies are out of the questions because they are downright lazy when push comes to shove, but there is another option: I could risk bringing the Unstable Mother Bag. The Unstable Mother Bag comes from Argentina, where I purchased it on the advice of my good friend Inti. Shaped like a loaf of bread on wheels with jaunty racing stripes on the side, the bag caught Inti’s eye for how much it looked like a bigger version of my classic Adidas gym bag, hence, “Mother”. And in a land where I could order a steak so large they serve it directly off the cutting board for around $4 Canadian, I paid the equivalent of $50 for the Mother Bag. We rolled it home problem-free, chatting about all the stuff it would hold. It wasn’t until the Mother Bag was fully loaded that I discovered its defect: an encumbered Mother Bag loses its centre, hence “unstable”. Through all seven switchbacks of the check-in counter in Buenos Aires I wrestled that bag along like a drunken companion. Inti was no help; he was too busy snapping photos to lend a hand…

And it doesn’t end with the checked baggage. Does my daypack count as a purse or is it all I can bring onboard? I hate it when I’ve got my paperback, laptop, zippy jacket, and sleepytime travel kit with eyeshades, Gravol, and earplugs all jammed into my bag so as soon as you dig in to locate your earphones or sunglasses or chapstick, the entire thing explodes and you’re left apologizing to your seatmate for the personal detritus you’ve just heaved all over their lap.

Also, weight restrictions. How much is a kilo? Seriously.

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