“Ick,” Paul said eyeing my fashionably torn jeans. “I don’t like those.”
“Too bad. Packing was horrible. I finally decided to pack by days. Today is cute day. Ripped jeans, pony tail and Keds tennis shoes.” Paul’s face was still.
“I don’t know. There’s still Sports day and Designer clothes day.” I paused. “Although, all the designer clothes were bought at Ross, so they probably don’t count.”
“What are you wearing during the safari?” Paul asked.
“Heck if I know. I’ll figure it out then.”
We spent the morning exploring the hotel while it rained buckets outside. The breakfast buffet sprawled along one long wall. Meats, eggs, cheeses, fruit—it went on and on. While trying on my clothes, I decided that I would have to choose either dessert or wine each day. I couldn’t afford the calories of both. Paul, on the other hand, told me that I always bought his clothes too big, so he had plenty of room. (Really?)
We’re staying at the Mount Nelson Hotel, an aging grand dame in Cape Town that reminds me of the Empress in Victoria, British Columbia. The “Nellie,” as she known, is painted pepto bismo pink.
The hotel is filled with wood-paneled rooms, walls of windows, and you can have champagne at the front desk upon your arrival. The restroom is called the cloak room, pots of tea are available 24 hours a day, and in the gift shop the clerk showed me a white and black striped clutch purse. It looked like horse hair.
“Zebra hide,” she said. “It is not tinted like the springbok hides are.” She waved at the wall of purses.
I backed out of the store feeling ill. Paul, ever my conscience and irritant, said,
“I’m sure they are farmed. It’s not really different than leather, Lesley.”
“Ick,” I retorted.
We caught the hotel shuttle to the Victoria and Albert waterfront. The car dropped us off at a three-story mall. I was outraged. If I wanted to shop at HM, I’d go to the city back home.
We skirted around the mall and walked the piers where workers were building boats, fishing vessels were pulling in to sell their catch, and Table Mountain towered behind us shrouded in clouds. There were security guards everywhere, and unfortunately we were on the wrong side of the gate each time. People walking towards us grumbled a bit as I refused to give way to my lane on the board walk.
“I think it is like cars. They think we are driving on the wrong side of the road,” Paul said in a low voice.
Grudgingly, I worked a little harder at moving to the left instead of holding fast to my side of the sidewalk. Then I remembered something my friend Linda told me at work.
“Paul, did you know that the toilet flushes in the opposite direction because we are in the Southern Hemisphere?”
“Hmm. Really.” I knew he could hardly wait to see if I was right.
We were looking for the Nelson Mandela Gateway in order to buy tickets for a tour out to Robben Island. We saw a building that had a faded sign that stated it was the Pier 1 Embarkation Point. Curious, we stepped inside the decrepit building. A surly woman gave Paul minimal directions to get to the new tourist building.
“Can we look around in here?” I asked her. She nodded.
Embarkation Point was the last place political prisoners were held until they were taken to Robben Island. It was empty except for us. Somewhere a TV was blaring, so we headed up a narrow set of stairs. In the first room were arm and leg shackles hanging on the wall. The floors were covered wall to wall with scratchy hard mats. The next room was covered with shellacked pieces of paper—typed, handwritten, blue, white, some with the names of churches or organizations on them. Regardless of appearance, they were all written by women begging the wardens and the government officials to allow them to see theirs fathers, husbands or sons. A prisoner on Robben Island was allowed one visitor a year for 30 minutes. 30 minutes. Paul and I talked about my wardrobe for longer than that this morning.
The letters were desperate. The elderly spoke of how they longed to see their children before they died, while wives begged to share pictures of their children with their fathers, while most poignant to me, there was a letter from a sixteen-year-old girl who was finally old enough to see her father. The women all wrote their identification number from their passbooks on their letters which made them a “real” person in apartheid South Africa. It was a gamble to put your name and number on a document. Women were political prisoners as well. The letters were signed “faithfully”. In the hundreds of letters on the walls, there was perhaps less than a quarter of them that had the word “Ok,” scrawled on the paper with a cavalier, uncaring hand approving the visit. The letters? They were written in 1965—a year before I was born.
We left the building, so small and insignificant, in the midst of the towering mall and working harbor. I looked down at my jeans and felt my face burn. Torn jeans are a symbol of privilege in my world, while for others each tear is a story untold and even forgotten.