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Kelly Abeln

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The Airplane Is Faster Than the Heart

Nearly three years ago, I quit my reporting job in Washington, D.C., and flew to Cape Town, a city on a continent I’d never been to before. I...

Nearly three years ago, I quit my reporting job in Washington, D.C., and flew to Cape Town, a city on a continent I’d never been to before. I wanted to get as far away from America as possible. Partly, I was burned out on Washington politics. The longer I spent there, the less I felt I understood. An old college roommate, the kind of globe-trotting girl who styled herself a “citizen of the world,” had once told me that “the most significant part of travel is the return,” and I hoped if I left honestly—with a one-way ticket, return date unknown—that when I came back I would see my home more clearly, with some of the perspective of a stranger.

But I’d also long had a dream to live and write in Africa. Books of journalism set there were always my favorites: The Village of Waiting, George Packer’s Togo memoir; My Traitor’s Heart, Rian Malan’s depiction of South African apartheid’s dying days; We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, Philip Gourevitch’s landmark testimony on the Rwandan genocide. It’s hard for me to say exactly why these books developed such a hold on me, but I think something of their power is expressed in the photograph on Gourevitch’s jacket cover. Instead of the obvious image of suffering Africa—say, the “massacre memorial” at Nyarubuye, where the skeletons of murdered Tutsis were left where they originally fell, for tourists to step over—it’s a picture he had snapped himself, of a small wooden chair looking out over Rwanda’s Lake Kivu.

On the one hand, the chair is so white and elegant, and the sunlit lake so lovely, that the scene looks almost as if it could depict a resort: And, indeed, fabulous resorts have sprouted up on the shores of Lake Kivu since the massacres took place, symbols of how swiftly circumstances change in Africa, and of the resources—scenic, geologic, human— the continent possesses, right on the tantalizing verge of being tapped. On the other hand, the image is also eerily empty, as if the chair’s occupant is hanging back outside the frame, afraid to sit down until he’s certain the place won’t go to shit again—and, of course, he can never be quite sure of that. The devil performs miracles, too, in Africa, in tedious alternation with the angels. I badly wanted to travel to this paradoxical continent.

The writing fellowship I used to get to Cape Town seemed perfectly tailored to deliver the experience I wanted. It demanded I spend two years developing a “deep national” understanding of South Africa through cultural immersion; indeed, for the whole two years I was not supposed to leave. But in his Congo novel A Bend in the River, V.S. Naipaul describes a trap that modernity has set for explorers. The speed of air travel—depart from New York and 18 hours later, hello, Mongolia!—zaps away the journey time that emigrants used to take to digest the change they had made to their lives. “The airplane,” Naipaul warns, “is faster than the heart.” In my own case, my flight made it to Cape Town not only faster than my heart, but faster than my stuff.

I discovered at the check-in counter that I wouldn’t be allowed to put my overweight main suitcase on the plane, so I landed in Cape Town with the hodgepodge of a refugee: a frying pan had made it over in my carry-on, along with some classical-music CDs, but only two pairs of socks. Hoping my bag would be sent along soon, I didn’t purchase socks my first week in South Africa. Instead, I washed the ones I had every night, wearing one pair while the other dried at the window of my apartment, which sat high up on the slope of Cape Town’s iconic Table Mountain. For some reason, my socks were accumulating thick scales of dirt by the end of the day, and the Great Scrubbing became a nightly ritual. I squeezed soap through them again and again while listening to Tomás Luis de Victoria’s Requiem and felt like the most placeless, drifting, purposeless person in the world.

More troubling was the way the sensation of placelessness persisted even when I got out into Cape Town. I was supposed to be developing a deep understanding of South Africa, and yet I seemed unable to meet any actual South Africans. My roommate was an American Francophile and my first three friends were Congolese. I spoke more French than English my first week.

One afternoon, I decided to take a walk down to the harbor, introducing myself at every store. I cut down Wexford Road toward the sea, to a block of shops at Buitenkant Street: a café newly opened by a hip Serbian; a tavern recently bought by a Yorkshireman who claimed he used to party with the Clash; and a café whose menu revealed the motley influences the nomadic life had wreaked on its Ethiopian owner: kitfo, avocado pizza, bacon-and-banana sandwiches. I thought of a passage I love from the book of Isaiah: “Nations will come to your light ... and the sons of strangers will build up your walls.” This was the kind of cosmopolitan place that the prophet was talking about, and it made me dizzy.

I kept walking all the way to the water-front. A pier jutted into the bay, and a white fog squatted over its edge. When I walked into the fog, it smelled. (In Cape Town, the mists often smell strange—sometimes like the ocean, sometimes like something else, rust or wet wood or entrails. I sometimes wonder: From whence are these mists coming? From which decaying shores?)

Behind the fog sat a hundred-foot luxury yacht in the final stages of construction. Inside its bowels, where every cabin had a flat-screen TV and a nozzle spat espresso straight out of the wall, a French marine engineer and a team of Australian skippers sang out “Ciao, ciao!” to each other as they buzzed around.

The yacht’s manufacturer was a rich Italian investor. Twenty years ago, he engaged a South African boatyard to build him a yacht. Midconstruction, the boatyard went belly-up. Loath to lose his investment, he simply bought the boatyard. While finishing his yacht, he decided the business of yacht making in Cape Town was a good one. So he expanded the yard and hired the French marine engineer.

It was a theme all the foreigners’ stories shared. They were tales of accident, of random drift, of ending up in Cape Town and then staying because the beaches were nice, or the labor was cheap, or just, hell, why not? I heard two separate stories of travelers who stuck around because it happened to be the city in which they got diagnosed with hepatitis A. The equanimity with which they accepted their unintentional destinies as Capetonians amazed me. Ishmael Biyoko, a Congolese cab driver who settled in Cape Town after a thief stole all his belongings during a layover to Mexico, put it to me this way: “I realized all places were the same to me. South Africa was just another place where I could do what I wished.”

I admired Ishmael’s adaptability, but it also repelled me. I had moved to Cape Town on the principle that all places are not the same, and that there was something to be witnessed in Africa I couldn’t witness in America. But Cape Town struck me as a multicultural jumble. Sushi restaurants were everywhere. And the foreigners I met often seemed like users. Ishmael, for instance, gleefully let me in on the tricks he used to undercut South African cab drivers’ fares.

And so I gave up—temporarily—on finding a deep understanding of South Africa among the people of Cape Town. I would have to look for what made South Africa South Africa somewhere else. It turned out to be right under my feet.























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