So anyway there was this meeting in Cape Town in February 2016 which I could with some marginal justification. This is the International Neurotrauma Society meeting, where lots of good scientists and medics go to discuss brain and spinal cord damage stuffs. My company can pay for it, I will meet some interesting and marginally important people and I’ll get to see a bit of the world for a short while which I would not otherwise do, at least not without using my own money. Also some collaborators are going to the meeting so I can talk to them about future work and so on. I leave it a bit late to decide to go and so I don’t plan it very well, as usual, but I find a quite cheap ticket which will cost only $1,300 for Gainesville > Miami > Doha in Qatar > Cape Town and back. This is suspiciously cheap as the last time I went to London it cost about $1,500 for less than half the distance. So one Friday afternoon I set off from my company and I am back by Sunday evening the next week. The meeting is three days in downtown Cape Town so I have a day and half before and a day and a half after and spend pretty much all of two weekends in rather grueling travel. Here is what happened.
The airplane leaves Gainesville about 5 p.m. on a Friday and I get to Miami without problems, where I hang out, beer, burger etc., til the Qatar airplane boards for Doha, Qatar. Never been there before.
We set out for a very long flight, over 12 hours. The computer screen thing keeps flipping between English and Arabic and points out various things on the map. So one thing it shows is where the Titanic sank in Arabic in 1912 (see below). I expect when the Titanic sank in English it was probably pretty close to that. There are various other dates with names of sunken ships in the Atlantic, flipping between Arabic and English, and I wonder why they don’t also highlight the sites of plane crashes too. Perhaps that would frighten people a bit, or maybe they are subtly suggesting that ships are not safe? Anyway the airplane does a great circle route right across the Atlantic to pass directly to France, over an Alp or two, the Mediterranean, a bit of Egypt, the tip of the Sinai, then over Saudi Arabia and finally to Doha in Qatar. It’s a twin engine Boeing effort, and I remember at one time they would only let four engine airplanes do a route like that as if one engine on a two engine craps out the plane would be in the ocean, but anyway there is no apparent problem I guess engines are pretty reliable nowadays. Everybody is asleep pretty much but I can NEVER sleep on an airplane, though I did try. Consequently I amuse myself most to the time by looking at movies (notably Bridge of Spies, Tom Hanks, pretty good) or reading my iPad Kindle books or doing Soduku, which I have been getting somewhat good at.
In the Doha airport, which is huge, there is a giant rather poorly put together teddy bear in the terminal, apparently by some famous artist, but in this particular case the guy was clearly not trying very hard but no doubt extracted an enormous amount of money from Qatar. Bamboozled them IMHO, but, well, it is a notable and memorable bit of nonsense. I think I could have come up with a gigantic rubbery wombat, mongoose or prawn of something for a tenth the price. There are ladies in Moslem gear and men in white Jelabas or whatever they are, with sort of hoods on with black cord around them, looks all very stylish. Lots of slobby looking westerners also, this is clearly a major hub airport. So the I wander around a bit. I had wanted to look at downtown Doha as I have 8 hours to kill and it is still daylight. I had tried to get information about going to downtown Doha through the internets, but the Qatar Airlines site, like most things on the internets, is not well designed but I do figure that I can order a visa but several days are need to process it (WHY??, and for course it is too late by the time I get round to it) and I have to stay in a hotel in Doha (WHY!!, I’m only there for 8 hours). Anyway I wander around the airport and ask the information booth guy about going to downtown Doha and he politely says go over somewhere else and speak to some immigrant place or something, up some stairs, so I wander off there and this other guy tells me to go down some stairs to a small table at the entrance of terminal B and I can get onto a free bus trip of downtown Doha, courtesy Qatar Air, so I wander off there, wondering why the polite information guy couldn’t tell me that. Anyway, the bus leaves at 7 p.m. and so I sign up and wander around a bit more as this would be in like 45 minutes. I see a Victoria’s Secret store, much like the ones everywhere else except that no prominent and interesting female bulges of any kind, either mammary or pubic, are visible, just the clothes. Obviously Qatari men (or women? I dunno) cannot be trusted with such images. There also does not seem to be any booze on sale anywhere, no bars, except there is a duty free, so I wonder what would happen if I buy a big bottle of whiskey and get blind drunk in one of the coffee bars or restaurants. I had told friends in the US that I was a bit worried about the Doha part of my trip as I could get into big trouble for any or all of alcohol, drugs, blasphemy or sex, a list of verboten items which includes some of my favorite things. Anyway I make it to 7:00 pm without getting imprisoned and/or beheaded, so I head for the bus. They give me a free visa without problems but then a crowd of us have to wait for maybe 45 minutes in line to get through the customs and all that bullshit, so a significant part of the three hour trip is that. I start talking to a Japanese lady and an Australian guy and we three sort of bond a bit. The guy is an engineer of some sort and is interested in brain science so I go on about that a bit. The ladies English is not very good so it is a lot harder to have a useful conversation with her. There are three tall thin absolutely type casted Dutch maybe 20 year old males who sit at the back of the bus and babble away constantly and riotously in their strange coughing and hacking language. They have extremely tight pants just like the teddy boys used to wear when I was a youth so I wonder 1a. how do they ever get these on? 1b. or off? 2. are they getting back in fashion again? Never throw old clothes out, there are only so many ways you can cover a butt, a leg or an arm, so every possible fashion has to be repeated every so often. So the bus drives out of the airport and we see Doha a bit. A lot of fancy looking cars, SUVs that kind of thing and the first stop is a parking lot which is directly opposite the standard view of Doha, all those great big buildings in a row across the sea. So I make this big c0llage picture as below, which I later try to sell at an artshow, but I get no takers.
It is now night so I take the pictures in the dark, including one of the three Dutch fuggers babbling away in Dutchese constantly as before. It is rather cold as the Qatari government decided that this time of year would be winter so I am a little challenged in my Florida Tea shirt and several people comment on how I must be freezing. However my Anglo-Irish metabolism kicks into overdrive so I am doing fine, it’s still significantly warmer than England or Ireland gets most of the time. Then they take us to the souk, the market in Doha and they let us loose for an hour. There are Arabic looking people everywhere and the souk is pretty much like the ones I have seen in Istanbul, Cairo, Jerusalem and Tunis, these Arabs really like their spices. There is a strong and pleasant smell of I don’t know what, peppers and stuff I suppose, which brings back memories. The only real difference from other souks is that the spices are usually in square plastic containers, not round wicker baskets and the containers have plastic sheets over them. I walk around with the Aussi guy and we don’t get bothered by anyone, which would not have been the case in Egypt or Tunisia. So I conclude that Qataris are in general pretty well off and don’t need to beg off of tourists.
We wander more or less randomly around the town, there is some concert going on and the streets are full. At one point a rather porky Qatari lady comes up to me and says I look exactly like her father, which is something I never had to deal with before. Her brother or husband or whoever he is seems to agree, but neither them or me really know where to go with this, as there is really no chance that we are somehow related. Or possibly my actual father had a more interesting life then the family was led to believe, but I seriously doubt it. So I am wondering how I could look like a Qatari or how a Qatari could look like me and don’t really come up with anything much. So we separate slightly embarrassed with each other. I opine to that Aussi guy “that was weird”. Anyway it all appeared to be genuine, I never got the feeling that they were trying to con me out money, lure me into a backstreet or something, which of course would be the first th0ught in the UK or US.
I have a coffee with the Aussi guy and then they take us back to the airport, quite interesting trip. At the airport I buy a coffee in one of the (non alcoholic) coffee bars and bullshit with the Aussi guy a bit more. Then we go our separate ways, he flying to Perth, me to Cape Town, never to meet again? He said he would friend me on Facebook. Later he did send me email so who knows? May meet up again some time.
I, of course, also go to the toilet, something I do periodically. This is always interesting as different countries have surprisingly different ways of dealing with human poop and pee. So in Doha the toilets have a very sensible thing, a sort of hose you can use to wash your butt if you want to or wash poop off of the toilet if you made a big mess. In England or America if you left a big sticky poop stuck to the toilet you would have to leave it for the next person to deal with, as there is no brush or anything to clean it up. In England or America you can’t leave a brush in there as it would immediately get stolen. Of course you could rub it off with toilet paper but who is going to do that? So this hose thing is a very sensible solution to this problem.
So Doha has a very large and fantastic airport and clearly a very impressive downtown area, also lots of fancy cars and people seem to be well off. So I did some research. Basically, like Saudi Arabia, the country is a theocracy with a king and all that royal bullshit and actually has the highest per capita income of anywhere in the world. All due to oil, it turns out there is a huge oilfield under Qatar and the sea next to it, so all the Qataris have to do is pump it out and sell it. If you are a Qatari citizen you have it made, free just about everything and you can buy and own property. If you are not a citizen you can’t own property and there is no way for you to become a citizen, even if you marry one. If you do marry one, your kids will not be Qatari citizens either, since they are polluted by your non-citizenness. So only about one quarter of the people living in Qatar are citizens and of course they own all the property which they rent out to the other three quarters, who do the actual work, so that that one quarter gets very rich. Without the oil all this would collapse because, like Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Russia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait and a few other oil rich craptoceries, they don’t actually make anything else the world would want to buy. This means that they can pretend to be big shots on the world stage without investing in education, start-up companies or anything which might make them competitive really. So at the time I am in Doha a barrel of oil costs about $30 while a mere year ago it was more like $130. The price plunge is basically because the Saudis are pumping like crazy because they want to stop the crappy fracking boom from shale oil in the US. Fracking oil is more expensive to produce so the US industry is OK if oil costs $130 a barrel but is not economically viable at $30 a barrel. And in fact these US companies are slowly one by one going under, too much debt and no way out from sales. I wonder about buying a barrel of Qatari oil and taking it back with me as a souvenir as I can easily afford $30, but figure it would be heavy, messy and difficult to fit into my hand luggage so I decide not. Also, while they sell a lot of stuff in the airport, I don’t see a shop selling barrels of oil, odd that you can’t buy the only significant export the country has. Clearly as electric cars become more of a mainstream thing oil will get less relevant so the price will go down due to lack of demand. And of course the world is, maybe, trying hard to get off of this fossil crap nonsense. So I wonder if the price will go back up much before it goes down again. There are now 400,000 fully electric cars in the US, and the number will increase dramatically from now on, even with low gas prices. And you, who were paying up to $4.00 a gallon at one point during the useless GWBush junta, how do you feel knowing that Saudi and Qatari oil actually only costs them a few dollars, some estimates are less than $5 a barrel? But until recently they were selling this noxious crap for $130 a barrel? If you have a ridiculous laughably pathetic fossil burning car they (literally) have had you over a barrel.
But I digress, so I get on the airplane to Cape Town. This time I am in the window seat, where I will be for the next 10 hours, as I thought I might like to look at the scenery. I get some nice pictures of clouds somewhere over North Africa and deciding that they are just clouds, put a bunch of random figures on them, including a Bernie Sanders supporter. I don’t know why I did this.
So I did not drink much as I do not want to bother the neighbors by having to urinate all over the place. As usual I cannot sleep so I look at the entertainment, read some stuff etc. The map thing shows the plane going around and not over Somalia maybe as there is a war on, then down the African coast most of the way, then inland over the desert to Cape Town. The lady next to me falls fast asleep and stays asleep for hours and hours. I wonder if she will ever move, and I’m thinking I will want to go the bathroom eventually. Anyway, after 8 hours or so, they put on the lights and she is still immobile. Finally she wakes up and eats breakfast, still immobile. I am getting sort of anxious, but don’t want to bother her, but this immobility sort of gets on my nerves and I look repeatedly at this sleeping and then gobbling face, wondering about how anyone can not move for so long. Finally after all the food is served and plates etc. collected, which is probably nine hours into the trip she does finally, slowly, move and I use this as an opportunity to go to the bathroom.
I meet her traveling companion standing at the bathroom, nice German lady doing some training course in South Africa which she does twice a year, for a month each time. She tells me what to do in SA and says that it is a great time to go as the exchange rate is very good versus the Euro and Dollar. I ask why that is, is there an economic crisis, and she says yes and a tall thin Dutch looking guy, my actual real first Afrikaans, butts in and says yes, the economy is crumbling. I talk to him a bit and he tells me to go to Camps bay, apparently a nice part of Cape Town. Of course I wonder if this is some gay bar resort and the guy is gay and for some reason fancies me or whatever, but I later find out it is just a normal bay and there don’t appear to be any gay people there at all, in fact everybody looks quite heterosexual. I wander through the airport do passports, baggage claim and say goodbye to the nice German lady, the immobile German lady and the lanky Afrikaans guy.
Now fully baggaged I wonder how I am to get to the hotel. No train, no underground, clearly a third world country or like La Guardia. Maybe I need cash so I change some money and get notes with Nelson Mandela on them, which is sort of cool.
I wander around the airport which has pictures of Nelson Mandela and that rugby player guy from the movie “Invictus” and so on. In the picture they have some other guy playing Matt Damon though. It is extremely hot as the South African government has mandated, in contrast to Doha, that February would be high summer, so my Florida clothes are now a bit more appropriate again. Anyway there does not seem to be a train or obvious bus connection to the city so I head off to the taxi rank, where there is only one taxi with a black guy. I ask him if he can take me into the hotel and he says something I don’t understand. While I am wondering what to do two other travelers come along, obvious Brits, man and wife I suppose. They are both short, he a little overweight, maybe 50 pounds plus and she fairly enormous, approaching spherical, and they are both very ebullient and friendly people as is often the case with the seriously overweight. It turns out they are going to the same hotel as me so we pile into another taxi which just showed up. The driver is an oldish white guy, an Afrikaans, who of course speaks excellent English, like they all do. We bullshit on about SA on the trip to the hotel, maybe 25 minutes drive. We go past a township. This is a fenced in area on the side of the road behind which there a jumble of shacks apparently mostly made of shipping material and corrugated iron. The driver says these places are the countries shame, and says the blacks live in these places illegally, so they don’t pay rent, but it can’t be totally illegal, as when they move in they have to pay utilities and trash pickup and so on. Odd. As we drive down the road we come in behind a big garbage truck which apparently is not closed up properly at the back so a stream of paper and other garbages continuously flies out. The driver makes various comments about this as it reflects on the country as the truck progressively and efficiently dumps trash all along the SA interstate. The Brit couple have been to SA before and say it is great, lot of great and cheap food and stuff to do. I of course had already deduced that they liked food, cheap or otherwise, quite a lot. The driver indicates that the economy is going downhill fast due to corruption and inefficiency, and says he has grandchildren in England, which he thinks is a great country where he might want to live one day. I’d heard that SA can be a bit dangerous for tourists so I ask about that. He says that the downtown area is totally safe, but then goes on about how I should keep my hands in my pockets to make sure I have control over my wallet and cell phone. These get stolen quite a lot, and he says people will bang into you apparently clumsily and use the contact to distract you from the fact that they are lifting something from your pocket. So this is sort of not too encouraging as I always like to wander around cities I am visiting for the first time, but of course useful information. Anyway get to the hotel, split the taxi fair with the bouncy Brit couple and head to the room.
Arrive at hotel about 10 a.m. and apparently I am a day late, I suppose when I booked I did not realize that the trip was going to take basically two whole days, another tribute to my brilliant last minute planing. Anyway I go to the room and have a much needed shower. By the time I’m done with that I do some emails after I get on the hotel internets, which I am annoyed to have to pay for. WiFi should of course be a basic human right like beer and french fries. By then it is around noon so I go for a walk. I head into the town carrying a back pack containing two cameras and odd lenses in case I see something interesting. The downtown area looks OK, very hilly, some trash in the streets, not a huge amount of traffic, but it is a Sunday so it is more empty than usual. I just randomly go north, as I had bumped into the Brit guy co-taxi person and he told me the government buildings are in that direction which might be marginally interesting. Actually they were some fairly interesting buildings, museums etc. but I headed off in the wrong direction for them. Anyway as I head northish it occurs to me that the really interesting government buildings I had seen on the internet in SA are in Pretoria, which is the capital, not Cape Town, but so what, I just want to get a feel for the place. So having no especial goal is something I usually do in a foreign city. There are not too many people walking around, and I sort of head out of the down town area a bit and see a sign to the “noon gun” so I decide I might as well go there. Anyway I follow signs round a few turns in the road. I see a fence behind which are buildings made of corrugated iron and packaging material and I realize I am walking past one of the settlements. A young black boy in the street sees me and immediately runs into the settlement. Shortly after two blacks, a man and a woman come out and ask me if I have any coins. Some of the money I got at the airport was coins which I have not even looked at, so I give them a few. They glom onto me and I decide I’m not really all that interested in the noon gun, whatever that is, so I head back to town. They keep asking me for money, saying that it is for their children who are starving. They keep calling me father, which is bit odd and tell me how god will reward me if I give them more money. I seriously doubt that since as far as I can tell there is no such person. Anyway I want to get rid of them so I give them a 20 Rand note, which is about $1.50, basically nothing for me. They see I have some 50 and 100 Rand notes and they of course now want one or more of those too. But I am getting a bit annoyed so I tell them no more, that’s enough. I am always in two minds about what to do when I meet poor people in poor countries like this. You can’t give money to all of them and you can’t know if they will spend the money on food or booze or drugs or what. So anyway I talk with them a little. The lady tells me I should put my camera, which I am carrying in my hand, in my backpack, or at least put the strap diagonally over my shoulder. And I should put the backpack on with both straps over my shoulders, as people grab cameras and backpacks if they are not well secured. She then says I should be careful of people who pretend to be measuring my shoes, odd, I guess bending down and at the same time sticking their hands in my pocket. She seems to know a lot about all this, I wonder how she knows all that. Anyway useful advice and I guess she is being sort of nice since I did actually give them some cash. Anyway I have had my hand on my phone and wallet the whole time, I’ve been places like this before, and I already got some advice from the taxi driver. So I am being firm about not giving them any more money so she heads back to the settlement, but the guy stays with me. I ask how to get to the Table mountain, the famous mountain right next to Cape Town, so the guy tells me and I head off in that direction. He keeps coming with me, carrying an empty water bottle for some reason. Anyway I ask him to go away, say bye bye to him, but he ignores me and keeps on walking with me, talking to me about god and all that stuff again which creeps me out a bit. Realizing I might be getting myself into a bit of trouble I decide not to walk to the Table mountain, as that would be several miles anyway, so I head back into the town center. After all, if they knew, I not only have reasonable amount of cash on me but something approaching $10,000 worth of camera gear in my backpack. The guy still walks with me and suddenly the woman appears again with another tall thin black guy, maybe her father I don’t know. He has no teeth and mumbles something which I don’t get. Now I am thinking that things may get really pear shaped soon so I tell them loudly and angrily to leave me alone. They lady says something to the two guys in some non English lingo and I guess she did a cost benefit analysis and decided I am not worth the bother so they finally leave me alone. I wonder what would have happened if I was smaller and/or female and/or a bit further away from the city center. Although nothing bad actually happened I learned you should be a bit careful in Cape Town, particularly outside the city center.
So I walked on downtown, going past a motorcycle hire place I had seen on the internets. This is Cape Bike Rentals and it turns out to be a few blocks from my hotel, on Bree Street, obviously a very cheesy location. Clearly I am fated to hire a bike there. I remember that there was a bike hire place right next to the hotel when I stayed in Melbourne a few years ago, and I was fated to hire a number of BMWs there, so history repeats itself. I then wander off to the sea shore, the harbor where there are all sorts or tourist shops. I walk past various outside bars and restaurants as I go past the harbor and I listen to random conversations. Most are English conversations by people with obvious English or Scottish accents. Only a few are speaking Afrikaans. I figure that a lot of Brits came here to escape the dreary British winter and the harbor would tend to have a lot of the richer people with fancy yachts and speed boats and all that, and presumably a lot of these would be Brits also. I also go past some shop which is full of Union Jack stuff, clearly some segment of SA still identifies with the old country.
Anyway back to hotel at about 6:00 p.m, quite tired, of course I did not sleep for two nights so I have a good excuse. I am not at all hungry as boredom forced me to eat everything possible on the airplanes. Anyway I watch some CNN and BBC stuffs about the Iowa caucus, which is about to happen, with people opining about Cruz, Trump, Rubio, Clinton, Saunders et al. This is the first actual time when a few Americans get to actually express an opinion about the crazies running for president this time around. Not very important, the daft US system means that anyone who actually wins Iowa is usually done for, so why do they bother?
Go to bar and have three beers as I cruise the web. This introduces me to the excellent Castle lager with which I will have much to do over the next week. Nothing much going on in the bar, so I get back to the room and sleep for the first time in three days.
Next day I get up at about 6 being jet lagged as the SA government mandate a 7 hour time difference form the eastern US sea bored. It being free, I eat a big breakfast, sausages, potatoes, baked beans (the British type, not the sugary crap American type), bread, cheeses, fruity things etc, good food here and then head off into the streets. I get to the bike shop and see a load of BMW GS bikes, the big twin boxers and the smaller 700s and 650s. I ask about getting a motorcycle, the guy says they don’t have any. I ask about later in the week, and he says a bunch of Dutchmen came in and hired a whole load of BMWs to do a two week trip round SA, so he has none all week. Then he thinks a bit and says he has a Harley, an old Sportster. It is a single seater which is fine, but has no carrier, so I would have to use my backpack. No problem. I think the guy did not give me the bike initially as it needs some work. He points out that the neutral light does not come on, which is a nuisance, but not a big problem. So I get it for the day, pretty expensive at about $100, but that is a lot less then you would pay in the US, this is real motorcycle country and when I ever going to get a chance to blast round SA on a bike? In SA they drive on the left side of the road, due to being part of the old British Empire and therefore never conquered by the Bonaparte, who is the reason why most of Europe and the poncy frenchyfied US drive on the wrong side of the road. But I am ambidextrous when it comes to that, I have no problem adjusting to either side of the road, mostly, so off I blast, on the right (i.e. left) side of the road for a change. The bike is a typically Harley, noisy, crude and heavy, a great fat pig of a machine, but fun all the same. Some wiring is messed up as not only does the neutral light not work, but the fuel reserve light is on even though the tank is full. Oh well. It’s Monday morning so a lot more traffic than the previous day, but really not too bad. Cape Town is very hilly and with winding roads, so speed is not high and someone not knowing where they are going, like me, is therefore at less risk then they would be in like Dallas, Houston or Atlanta, where everybody is way over the speed limit all the time, they know exactly where they are going and are constantly on your ass since you are not going fast enough. I randomly drive around and find myself heading for the Table mountain. I find that you have to park and go up a cable car to the top, so I decide to do that after the meeting. So then I bike up Signal hill, a smaller hill next to the table mountain. At the top there is a great view of the town, and there are people paragliding, looks amazing. I see signs telling you not to wander off on your own, one sign says walk around in groups of three or more, another saying four or more, again raising my awareness about being careful.
I then head off to the beaches, very nice white sands, including Camps bay which the lanky Afrikaans on the airplane told me about. Everybody appears to be heterosexual, though this is not something I care about very much. Homo, hetero, bi, all fine as long as they leave me alone.
So I go to a mall, initially with the thought of seeing what kind of shops they have, just curious. They have Wimpys, a burgery restauranty place I used to go to in the UK when I was a shrub, but extinct there now, but apparently still going strong in SA. Since I am in a mall I then think about buying some toothpaste which I forgot to pack, but I then forget that (again) as I wander around looking at people and shops. I decide to get my hair cut, as I have the Bernie Sanders look right now, and I might do better at the meeting if I don’t look like I was dragged through a hedge backwards. I had shaved my head a few months previously and then totally neglected my head since then. The hairdresser has only women in it, so I ask if they do men, and they do, so one of the ladies, a young slim attractive blond Afrikaans lady deals with me. She asks if she can wash my hair, it would make her job easier, so I say yes. So she starts massaging my head for several minutes which seems sort of unnecessary but it’s nice so I don’t mind. Then she gets me to sit in another seat to get the hair actually cut so I ask her how she likes South Africa telling her it is my first full day there. She is quite interesting, going on about how the country is falling apart because the ANC is screwing everything up. I had heard that in neighboring Zimbabwe the government had basically kicked out the white farmers, some of whom had been there for generations, this was Rhodesia after all. A lot of them were murdered in very brutal ways and many of the farms seemed to have become a lot less functional with them gone, which can’t have been good for the Zimbabwean economy. She tells me that apparently the ANC made some deal with Zimbabwe to share electricity under unknown conditions, meaning regular power cuts in Cape Town, which is bad if you are running a business in a mall, as suddenly it goes totally dark. Now there is some power back up though. She says the blacks all hate the Boers like her and want them to leave. I ask if they hate the British (like me) and she says that as far as they are concerned all whites are Boers, so yes they would. She has no plans to bail out to Holland or somewhere and is not afraid to die, but does not want to get tortured or raped, which seems an odd and rather pessimistic sentiment. She also bemoans the low value of the Rand making if difficult for her to travel, and she has never in fact been outside SA. I comment I have been all over the world and she says she is so jealous. So I say my goodbyes, hoping that things improve for her. This all sounds a bit like the right wing stuff you would get from a lot of people in the US, and I wonder how much I can conclude from an N of 1. But she seemed rational enough, not a Michele Bachmann or Sarah Palin type. Anyway I then go into a book shop in the mall to look around and there is a book “Is this the end of South Africa?”. I read the back and this was apparently originally a book written about the old South Africa, before the ANC took over. The problem then was the sanctions and the fact that, because of apartheid, SA was an international pariah. The same author used the same title for a new very recent book to look into the future after 20 years of ANC rule, which apparently has not been a great success. The summary on the cover gives a pretty bleak prognosis so from this and the hairdresser I get the impression that SA might be heading for a big crisis fairly soon.
I bike down a long road, Chapman way, round the coast which is extremely scenic, and I have to pay 26 Rands either way, but worth it, especially as this is actually less than 2 dollars. I stop several times to look at things, take pictures. I think that this is likely the most scenic coastline I have ever seen, and I take a bunch of panoramic pictures. At one stopping point I meet an old Afrikaans lady who is dancing around with a meerkat. She holds it around the neck and says it bites a bit, which is the reason she holds it round the neck. She has 7 of them and they follow her around apparently. She flips between English and Afrikaans, which is basically Dutch, which is somewhat similar to German which I can usually understand, so I can more or less guess what she is saying. I take a few pictures of her which might be interesting, she is clearly unusual looking.
Having done with her I see two guys standing by the Harley. For some reason they are impressed by this old piece of American junk and I tell them it is not mine but hired. One old Afrikaans guy maybe 70s, has one clear lens and one dark lens in his glasses for some reason and he tells me he had a Matchless, an old English now extinct brand. He goes on about how Harley registered the “ton” of the engines. I guess he means the “tone”, “ton” would be German and I guess Africaans for sound, that thumping din the ridiculous old Harley makes and I give him my opinion that there are much better bikes than Harleys around now, but he does not seem to be interested in that. So I head off back to Cape Town with the Harley making it’s ridiculous din, valves clanking on top of the noise of large and very inefficient explosions in the two big old Otto motors and the wheels or drive belt or something make a constant din. Anyway, the turns on the roads in Cape Town are interesting, sharp and with steep climbs and inclines, so I have to pitch the bike over quite a lot when cornering. The Harley is not built for this kind of riding and so I ground the foot pegs several times, making sparking trails down the road, which annoys me although it does not seem to be dangerous, as I don’t fall off or anything.
I get back to the bike shop and give the bike back after gassing it up. At the gas station there is no self service so I park and a very large and well built black guy comes up to me and I tell him to filerup. This seems to take a while and as he is doing this some other black guy goes past in a truck and says something to him in not English. He laughs and says something back in not English. I ask him what language that is and he says Shona. I ask where that is from and he says Zim. I say where is that and he says Zimbabwe, the neighboring country, was Rhodesia, and so I say uhuh kind of thing, I might have guessed Zim was Zimbabwe, but I didn’t. I go into the inconvenience store by the gas station and there are pies, British type pies! More evidence for the continuing influence of the British Empire, will have to try some before I leave.
Anyway, I have done well over 100 miles, and I had a little range anxiety, as I don’t know how big the gas tank is and as I said the warning lite is always on. I don’t want to run out of gas in the middle of nowhere. Anyway no problems and I hand the bike back. I tell the guy at the bike shop about the gas warning lite and he says the bike needs some work. More to be a pain than anything I ask if the gas warning light, on when you have plenty of gas, goes out if you get to reserve as that would actually be useful. This might happen if the bike was wired up backwards or something. The guy either doesn’t understand or thinks I am a stupid asshole so just changes the subject. So I wander off back to the hotel. Then I look for the first session of the meeting I am supposed to be at, supposed to be that evening, and I find it is not at my hotel. I somehow figure out that I might be in the wrong hotel, as the hotel company has another location in town, so I ask about where the other one is, just a few blocks away. It is now dark so I am told it is not safe to walk there. I could get a taxi there and back, but decide to miss that, its just some introductory nonsense anyway, so I decide to just sit in the bar and do emails and whatnot instead. So several Castle lagers later I stagger off to my room.
The actual meeting
The next day I finally figure out where the meeting is taking place, it was not in the other hotel as I had thought but in the convention center which I should have guessed. I am not the most organized person, but anyway I make it there it is in fact in the next block, get registered, badged and off to the races. I immediately run into my Italian friend/collaborator Stefania, brilliant lady, but she more or less immediately rushes off to some session. I go into some of the sessions and learn about various traumatic brain injury related problems and issues, as that is the topic of the meeting. The movie “Concussion” is just coming out in Europe, a not quite accurate retelling of the Bennet Omalu story, the discovery, sort of, of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. Although it is not quite accurate, it is actually pretty good, as usually Hollywood makes a complete balls of actual reality. This is the only movie in which immunostaining of brain sections is an integral part of the plot. Since immunostaining of brain sections has been a significant part of my life I have a special bond with this movie, which I will have to buy or steal or sometime. Anyway I run into various other people I know and do some blah blah with them. So the meeting is basically three days, pretty intense with talks all the time pretty much from 8-6 every day, sometimes three talks going on at the same time, with poster sessions, exhibits and some other stuff also. I diligently go to talks, some of which I have no recollection of now, or even in fact 5 minutes after they ended, but a few which I thought were pretty interesting. A sad thing these days is that science got very competitive so scientists only mostly talk about stuff they already published, so you tend to not learn too much from the talks. Talking to people is more valuable as you can get a feel for what people think is important and what they might actually really be doing.
These kind of meetings are sort of an interesting human behavior phenomena. A lot of very well known people show up and also a lot of also rans, who may be less successful scientists, or younger scientists who have not yet made a mark, or people still in training which would be postdocs and students. So ambitious individuals try very hard to be noticed. This means they will introduce themselves to the top guys, and they are mostly guys, though there are some top girls also. Then you have to impress them with something you said or did, and the whole thing very much favors extroverts. Being seen with the right people is important, and the organizers of the meeting or the big scientists usually have people almost fighting to talk to them, sit by them, go to bars with them etc. Humans are just a hierarchical species with younger members trying to become top dogs, deposing the present top dogs.
There is a party the last evening of the meeting in some very fancy down hall place in Cape Town. There is a lot of booze and dancing, and I dance for a bit like a hippopotamus as usual but so what. Below are pictures of Stefania, my Italian collaborator and two other well known scientists, a Povlishock and and a Diaz-Arrastia. So I bullshit away with people, eat and drink too much and probably do and say a lot of things I would later regret if I could remember them. Being rather drunk I wander unsteadily back to hotel, walking through the dark streets at around midnight, but apparently I managed it with wallet, cell phone and camera intact, as I still had them all in the morning.
Last day of the meeting
I go to the last day of the meeting and meet some more great scientists. One is Dalton Dietrich, head of the spinal cord project in Miami. I sort of know about him and I think he sort of knows about me, so I go up to him and I say that I am not sure if we ever met. He says we have, but if we have I don’t remember it, of course I may have been drunk at some meeting, which as you can see tends to happen and means nothing really. Anyway we talk about generally doing scientificy things together in some version of the future without getting very specific. I later bump into Stefania and she asks me what we talked about and she says she wants more specifics, as she wants to be involved in whatever it was, so we go and talk to Dalton again.
Anyway, by about 3:00 I have had enough of the meeting, it finishes at 4:00 so I didn’t miss much. In my humble opinion a lot of the talks were pretty bad and many were about how you treat brain or spinal cord injury patients. Of course that is extremely important issue, but I am a PhD, not an MD, so this is not what I ever have or have wanted to deal with, so I am not all that interested. I’m more interested in the scientific aspects of what is going on and how you could use an understanding of the science to help people, so I might do something useful for patients without ever really seeing any of them. So I wander off into other parts of the down town area. I get to a fantastic garden which was where the Brit governor used to live, full of very large and interesting trees, bushes and actually rats, several of which are running around in typical ratty fashion. There is a big statue of Cecil Rhodes, who named Rhodesia after himself, and it’s sort of interesting he has a Hitleresque arm raising thing, another Brit thing. Of course there was a lot of Dutch stuff also, but I know less about them. The only one I heard of was Jan Smuts, and there are several statues to him. Others, like Johan Van Riebeeck I don’t think I ever heard of.
Then back to the hotel and the mandatory Castle lager in hotel bar while I catch up with emails and all that.
Last full day IN SA
I eat a huge breakfast and head off the bike place. Again they only have a Harley, this time a huge porky great Electra Glide, the fattest ass Harley. Natural selection at work, all the smaller and more sensible BMWs and even the crappy sportster were out, so this was scrapping the bottom of the barrel. Having no other option I get it, and off I set. I set off and go round the Chapman highway again for 26 Rands again, and have to stop after a couple of miles to show that I paid full price as apparently you can pay less then 26 Rands, but then you have to turn round and go back. So I stop the bike by a neatly uniformed bIack, and struggle to find the ticket which I had stuffed in one of my pockets but I forget which one as I thought I did not need it. The fat pig of a Harley starts rolling backwards as we are on a slight incline. I try to put the foot brake on but can’t as the bike is leaning to the right, so I need by right leg to stop it falling over, and I can’t use the hand brake as if I do that I can’t find the ticket. The ticket checker guy grabs the hand brake obligingly so I can find the ticket which I manage to find and show him. He gives me brilliant smile with what may be the whitest teeth I have ever seen, and he says “have a good day”, and I put he pig in gear and off I go. I want to go to a famous botanical garden, and have a vague idea where it is so I set off. Typical Shaw cockup, the cell phone GPS don’t work, and so I don’t initially head in even the right direction. Then I find that the Harley has a GPS! New to me, I thought Harley was still stuck firmly in the last century. So I try to find the garden, but I have forgotten how to spell it exactly. It was actually the famous Kirstenbosch botanical gardens, which I might be forgiven for forgetting if I did not know about the place before I went to SA, as I am interested in cycads, interesting old plants many varieties of which live in SA, and many of which are in the park. So anyway I put in “garden” and the crappy GPS finds that and will take me there if I add this as a waystation to some route already in the system. So I set off and it soon becomes clear that the GPS will take me back to a gas station in Cape Town, a route somebody else put in, and then to this garden with is stupid since the garden is maybe 2 miles away but Cape Town is maybe 30 miles away. So then I figure it out and off I go. In homing in on the gardens I happen to pass one to the townships and I see close up the fences topped with very nasty looking razor wire and I wonder what the point of that is as the gates appear to be open and why would anyone want to climb the fence in either direction? Inside the fence are some small houses in some parts with normal looking residential streets but in other places there is just a maze of small shacks spaced very close together and apparently made out of shipping materials. Everywhere there are lots of people, all black, hanging out in the streets, presumably unemployed as this is a Friday. As I drive down the road parallel to the township I see people, mostly men, sitting at the side of the road, alone or in small groups and spaced apart every 50 yards or so. I don’t know what that is for, possibly they are hoping to get picked up for some work. As I bike past I am pretty sure a lot of these guys are looking at me carefully and so I don’t slow down just drive on past. The township is pretty big, the side I drove past was at least a mile, so I am thankful I didn’t have to stop anywhere. Am I a pussy? Maybe, or maybe I just want to avoid avoidable trouble.
Anyway I visit the gardens and it is pretty amazing, loads of cycads and other plants about which I am fairly clueless about including some crazy Welwitschia plants. The picture above is not one of those though, as the pictures I took of the Welwitshia looked sort of crap. On these trips you always learn new stuffs. Below is a picture of the pig/motor cycle and the back drop at the botanical gardens, pretty spectacular.
An Africaans lady looks at my head and says I am burning in the sun and she says “you don’t have a hat, why not?” With the “why not” bit very high pitched and aggravated. Good question. Anyway I am fine since I covered myself with sun screen. Another Africaans shows me two fat owls sitting in a tree so I take a bunch pictures of them.
Then I had heard that there is this famous beach with a load of penguins on it, so off I head there. I park the bike and some suspicious Asian guy tells me it will be very safe so of course I don’t let it out of my sight for very long. There are in fact penguins everywhere and I take pictures of them, and pictures of people taking pictures of penguins and pictures of a pretty Africaans girls looking at penguins.
On the way back I am in traffic and a black face appears out of the window, and a guy says “are you having a good day?”. I say yes, and I am greeted again with a black face, a huge smile and some really great white teeth. There are clearly good dentists in SA, or maybe good diets, I dunno. So I stop at the same gas station as before and you are clearly not supposed to pump gas yourself. A different black guy fills up the bike than the Zim/Shona guy and does not seem to speak English so not much to report here. I take the bike back relieved to be shot of it as it is just way two big and clumsy for the challenging terrain. I say as much to the bike guy and he smiles and agrees. On my way back to hotel I buy a bottle of Castle lager, excellent stuff, and also go the the railway station where I buy a steak and kidney pie which is good. I like these, junk food though they be, and so when I get a chance to eat one I do. Back to the hotel where I do emails, look at news sites and so on, then go down to bar. I drink more Castle lagers and by about 10 I go off to the room. I lie down on the bed with the TV on and fall asleep, waking up at like 2 in the morning. This happens sometimes.
I get up at 6:00 have breakfast and head off for a final walk around Cape Town. So I go down town take picture everywhere. I find a monument to the Scott expedition to Antarctica, one of the British Empires great propaganda points and/or screw ups. So there is a statue to him in the center of Cape Town, though as far as I can tell he had no connection to the place. Go to some areas I had not been before and in 2 hours got asked for money no less than 5 times. I’m getting sort of annoyed about this so I just ignore them now. Selfish of me? I don’t know, if I give them any money they just want more and I can’t give all of them money, so maybe it makes sense to not give it to any of them. I do notice quite a few people are living in the streets so it appears there is a lot of genuine poverty. I wonder if you can blame the people in a country for the way the country is- maybe if they had a decent government things would be a lot better. So in a democracy you get the government you deserve? If everybody was well educated and informed this might happen, but then the government has to be responsible at some level for the education, so it all gets a bit circular. If the government does not pay to educate people you get crap people who then select a crap government, which is what might happen in the US soon. I decide that all this is not very useful and wonder if there is another less corrupt party or a coalition that could kick out the ANC at the next election. Either that or they find another Nelson Mandela to replace Jacob Zuma. Oh well, not really my immediate problem as I am heading out. So I spend about 3 hours just wandering around, sad to be leaving as it is all quite interesting here.
Anyway check out of the hotel at about 10 am and get a taxi to the airport. The taxi driver is a guy from Malaysia and a Moslem. Tall, well built, neat beard with intelligent looking eyes. Also a friendly guy who lives in one of the townships, which he says are very dangerous. If I went in one he says I would loose everything down to my shoes and glasses in 5 minutes or less. I ask him about the apartheid era, which he can remember being I would guess about 30-35. He says it was crazy, not only blacks but also Asians, like him, were discriminated against, not allowed on white buses and so on. Funny how the Dutch are so tolerant in Holland while the ruling elite in South Africa, basically also Dutch, was anything but. We talk about Trump in the US who does not want to let Moslems into the US and he says he is shocked at that and that in South Africa there is no religious intolerance, every body prays to the same god he says. I say that I don’t think Trump can get elected but that you can’t rule it out, after all they voted for GWB twice (or possibly just once), and he was totally unqualified also. He says that SA needs a new government, Jacob Zuma apparently has no clue about how to run a country but is quite good at enriching himself and his cronies. I ask if a white man or woman might win an election in SA and he says he does not think so. Nice guy so I give him some extra Rands which are not too much use to me now. Sorry to be leaving and wondering if I will ever get back.
On the way back I realize another reason why the ticket was so cheap. I get into Doha at like 8 in the evening and the flight out is like 12 hours later, in the next morning. Next time I will have to look at the itinerary a bit more carefully, but of course I likely won’t. So I decide it might be good to check into the hotel at the airport. All booked up. Too late to go downtown, and anyway I don’t want to mess with all that visa stuff again. Fortunately the internet wifi works so I can deal with various crises in Florida and so on. But that only takes a few hours. I try to sleep on a bench but of course can’t. I go to some of the stores having nothing else to do. There are loads of people in neat suites attending each and every store, even though it is late at night with not too many actual potential customers, which immediately suggests a job creation scheme. So I ask one of the guys if I can buy a barrel of oil, a young thin bearded and handsome guy in a black suit. Of course I am not serious, but I am curious what he will say. He says no they don’t sell it. I ask where could I get one from, he says he does not know, maybe the oil ministry? I am thinking of asking him why his country does not sell directly the only thing from Qatar that anyone wants, but then I think that is too confrontational, and anyway none of this is his fault. So I say I will check the oil industry on the internet and wander off and attempt to sleep but of course fail.
The trip back
The trip back is similar to the way out, movies, soduku, toilets, people, but the way back is always an anticlimax compared to the way out. After all, you just did this already, and for whatever reason I had enough with blah blah with people, and I’m really not interested in what the US might be like as I been there before so I mostly keep to myself. And ! was tired so I just want to get home. Back in Gainesville in the evening of the Sunday a week after the Friday I left, tired but a lot of new experiences and interesting interactions.
Cape Town has to be one of the most spectacularly situated cities on the planet. There is a lot of Britishness about it, pies, driving left, cars with L plates, statues of Brits and so on. There is also a lot of Dutch and Afrikaans influence also. A lot of very tall thin often blond people walking around, road signs and town and village names in Dutch. Interesting vegetation, fantastic scenery, great food, very cheap. The only problem for a tourist is that you never feel quite safe. It would be smart to go with a group of people, perhaps four or so. And possibly soon, if I am right about possible big trouble in the near future.