Welcome To Cape Town

We came to Africa for the animals and did not expect the wildlife we found.

We flew into Cape Town, South Africa, after traveling through the night across the South Atlantic from Buenos Aires. Hardly taking time to catch our breath, we made a telephone call to friends of friends named Peter and Eileen Rawbone-Viljoen who are native South Africans from a wealthy Cape Town suburb. Cosmopolitan and stylish, Peter and Eileen are the sons and daughters of farmers who worked hard and found opportunity here. They live well by any standard don't apologize for the complete bounty of their South Africa.

"You must come to our party," Eileen said brightly on the phone, the sight of us as yet unseen. "It's Peter's Fiftieth! Bring the children!"

We quickly showered, unpacked and shook out our wrinkled clothes. We found ourselves some time later on the outside of a high whitewashed wall with iron gates to match those at Versailles. The Rawbone-Viljoen's house had a name: Huis in Bos, house in the bush. Up a long driveway through a park of towering pines, we saw a rambling colonial-style mansion. A private wine vineyard spread into the distance.

We followed the direction of amplified rock 'n' roll through an interior with burnished teak floors and shutters, faded tile walls with inset art deco friezes and graceful arches that opened onto long, breezy verandas. Under a white marquee tent on the back lawn about 200 personable Capetonians were proving their long-range reputations as untamed party animals, young and old, male and female. The morning fog was rolling off the edge of Table Mountain before guests left to go home.

The graciousness of these strangers was overwhelming, but we were starting to wonder what kind of example we were giving our children when Fraser asked, "When do we get to Africa?" I told him, "We are there." He was confused. "Then where are the Africans?"

Wanting to see the other half of Cape Town we booked a tour through one of the townships. A woman at a travel agency warned us, "There is terrible poverty there. Your children will be frightened."

I replied, "They can handle it, or they should at least be given a chance to try."

We prepped the kids with a discussion of South Africa's history and explained why we thought it was important to visit the townships. A day later we went out to visit the Cape Flats and the all-black Langa.

We were introduced to Irene Lengisi smoking a long pipe in sublime contentment. Irene has lived for 67 years through the worst of apartheid and now awaits the (as yet mostly-undelivered) promises of majority-black rule. She lives in a tiny room with three neat beds with mattresses and blankets. As many as 20 other people share the same room, either sleeping in or outside in one of the shacks. Irene pays approximately $1 rent per month, and her bony frame attests to a diet that is less than complete. The sight of an old woman with glowing ebony skin drawing on a long-stemmed pipe with her head in a cloud of bitter smoke fascinated Fraser, who would almost certainly have asked her for a puff if his parents weren't nearby.

By now we heard the sounds of children outside in a forecourt by the road. Molly and Fraser had brought from America a small suitcase of old Beanie Babies, pencils, hair clips and JellyRoll pens, for just this sort of occasion. Molly, who normally is quite shy around strangers, boldly distributed the gifts. She attached the mini hair claws to the girls' heads and handed out JellyRoll pens to the boys.

We were invited inside a neighboring shack with sunlight slivering through warped boards. The change from bright light momentarily blinded us. When our eyes adjusted, we saw men sitting with their backs against the walls drinking from a large pail of beer. A plump, smiling woman was squeezing water out of ground corn in a process that frankly baffled me but suggested the brewing of beer. We had arrived at an illegal bar, or "shebeen," and the welcome of the men--and soon their wives and children, until the shack was standing-room-only--was unsurpassed even by the Rawbone-Viljoen's on the other side of town.

The men shared their pail. Bubbling with froth, the yeasty beer tasted sweet and raw, and that clearly appealed to Fraser, who whispered an aside as he lowered the bucket from his lips, "Wow! Daddy, that was awesome!"