Thank you for your tension!

Trip Start May 25, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of South Africa  ,
Friday, March 3, 2006

I suppose I didn't really realise the full impact of power.

Lights / Robots / Traffic lights - whatever you may call them, they weren't working in Stellenbosch today. Vehicles approached the four way multi-lane junctions with the trepidation of young antelope running past a crocodile den. And now it was my turn.

Luckily Gretha was there to help. She was a veteran of the power cuts that had plagued the Cape area for the past few weeks. She seemed to have tuned in her electricity detector.

'See that' she'd say, 'The power just went off'.

I hadn't even noticed. The traffic was bad enough already and I couldn't even see the lights to notice when they had stopped working. Neither could she, but somehow she knew.

I'd finished my meetings early and there was still some time for a bite to eat.
"My treat; as a thank you for your hospitality. Where should we go?"

'Well, there is always The Strand.'
"The Strand?"
'The beach'
"Great idea!" I replied.

We picked our way along the coast. It was a glorious day and I was keen to breathe in the air you only get on the coast. The fresh, chilly, moving air that signifies that anything could happen at any moment. We curled through the mountains that must make living in the area a delight. What an inspiration to wake up every morning with an old piece of rock staring down at you, reminding you that everything is simply fleeting and that although you should strive to be the best you can, that in reality, a human life is such a small entity in greater scheme of things.

'Hooray - I can see the beach! Gosh Gretha, you are so lucky to be living here. I feel like ice-cream! What do you think?"

'Sounds like a plan to me; I know just the place.'

The Strand was almost like any other beach front in the world. The houses and hotels preached high above small shops selling postcards, food and beach items. Some were painted in the customary pastels colours you find across the globe, others in the stark white that reflects the sun onto the bathers below. The lanes became narrow as we drove along the beach front. Parking was at a premium, and it wasn't even tourist season! Images of Brighton, Blackpool and Morecombe flashed through my mind.

'There we are, just park where you can'
And then it dawned on us, without power there would be no freezers, and without freezers there would be no ice-cream! This was getting all a bit too much!

'Sorry' said the shopkeeper, 'The power went out three days ago and we haven't sold a thing since'

"Oh well, I'll just have to come back another time!" It was a good enough excuse for me anyway!

As we walked along towards the beach we passed a smaller newsagents that had ice-cream on sale. It was rather soggy and the bars felt soft through the wrappers, but it was the principle of the thing. Nothing would stop this beach adventure from taking place.

So as the wind licked my hair, I licked my ice-cream. Large translucent jelly-fish littered the beach, long since having given up their fight to remain in the ocean. The tide was a long way out. Pebbles and shells made patterns along the pristine sand and a few tourists exposed their whitewashed bodies to the sun. As they smeared their bodies with sunscreen and turned a ghostly white I couldn't help but smile at the conscientious nature of their sun regime, knowing it so well myself.

"They must be European, perhaps even British" I said as I gave Gretha a knowing smile.

'What time is your flight?'
"About 5pm, why?"
'Well considering how long it took us to get here, we should get moving. The lights will be causing chaos in the city on a Friday afternoon by now.'

Damn it - why do I always end up running for my planes?

The traffic was as bad as Gretha thought. Junctions and roads were packed to the brim with over-heated cars and frustrated drivers. The minutes ticked away and I began to wonder if my stay in the Cape would be extended afterall.

'Take a left.'

Without Gretha I doubt I would've made it. She is a wise city driver, and remarkably we managed to bypass the majority of the highway hell, arriving in plenty of time.

"Now, about that meal" I said.


As the boarding time drew closer I said goodbye to Gretha and moved through to the security gate. I was sad to see her go. It was lovely to be surrounded by such warm generous people. Maybe it was the mountains that helped to keep them all sane in the Western Cape?

I moved towards my gate. Why was the place so busy? Perhaps I was joining the weekly rat race back to Gauteng? Then I glanced at the flight board. All the lines were flashing in bright red 'DELAYED. DELAYED. DELAYED'

OK, well, how delayed is delayed?

'Sorry Madam, your flight is due in approximately 3 hours.'
"Hmmm. Three hours. May I ask why?"
'Well, we aren't getting any planes in from Johannesburg because of the huge storms in Gauteng, and so we don't have the aircraft to fly. It should clear soon. We are sorry for the inconvenience.'

No seats. Little to buy in the shops and no desire to eat sweets or take up smoking. No planes to watch. Perhaps a coffee would help.

"One coffee please." I said having finally made it to the front of the extremely long queue.
'Sorry Madam, we are out of coffee.'
"OK. A cup of tea then please."
'Sorry Madam, we are out of tea.'
"What about a latte then?"
(Silence. I squinted past the shop assistant at the menu on the board.)
"What do you have?"
'We have Coke, Water, Juice'
"Any hot drinks? Hot Chocolate perhaps?"
'Sorry Madam, we don't have any hot water!'

Why didn't she say so in the first place! Why allow people to line up for 30 minutes to buy a hot drink when they had no hot water? Why? Why? Why?

"But you have light?"
"But no hot water"
"Ok, a bottle of water then please."

This power situation was getting serious. I went and found some floor space and joined the other passengers who sat somberly, waiting for their plane to Gauteng. The board kept flashing. Twelve flights, five airlines and thousands of passengers, all waiting for the rain to stop.


Movement. Staff arrived in airline suits wheeling small suitcases.
The tanoy spluttered in to life;
'Thank you for your tension (attention). Flight #### will be ready to board in five minutes. Will all passengers please proceed to Gate 23. Thank you for your tension.'

I couldn't help but smile. I was sitting at Gate 23, my flight was nowhere in sight, and they were thanking the crowd for their tension!

Crumpled looking people started to gather around my seat. Bags bashed my legs, children crawled past my feet, and families struggled to stay together. I watched the text book example of human nature unravel. After waiting for so long, everyone wanted to be first. Were they worried that the plane would go without them?

The staff moved fast. The plane was loaded in double quick time, except for one! The tanoy broke through the air once again....

'Thank you for your tension. Would Mr. Z please make his way to Gate 23! That's Mr. Z, please go to Gate 23. GATE 23. MR. Z'

This was turning in to quite a party. The staff were getting frantic. Men who may be 'Mr. Z' kept approaching the desk to wide-eyed gestures from the staff, only to be turned away as they examined his papers and found it to be another Mr. Z

'You're not the one we are looking for'

The announcements grew frenetic. What was the big deal? They were already 3 hours late, couldn't they wait another few minutes? Then finally Mr. Z appeared. He ambled along towards the Gate with not even a hint of remorse. They bundled him on to a golf cart and sped him across the tarmac to the waiting plane. He simply didn't seem phased at all. Good for him I thought, make the buggers wait!


'Der der der derrr, Der der der derrr, Der der der der deeeeerrrrr.'

My phone was ringing. I was semi-expecting it. I had called the shuttle service in Pretoria to tell them not to send a driver to pick me up as we were terribly delayed. They would want to confirm this I knew.

"Hello. Claire speaking"
'Hello Madam. This is Imperial Rental Cars. We are calling about the car you had last week. We have not received it back. Can you please tell us where it is?'
"Yes. I returned it to Johannesburg airport over a week ago."
'We cannot find it Madam.'
"Well, I returned it a week ago and I am not sitting in Cape Town. I left it before I flew here."
'It is in Cape Town? Why did you take the car to Cape Town?'
"I didn't. I left it at Johannesburg airport at your office last week. I am now in Cape Town. I returned the car a week ago. Perhaps you can check with your office at the airport and see if they can tell you where it is?"
'Ok Madam. Thank you.'
"Ok, thanks, goodbye!"

These were the kind of conversations that left me looking at my phone in disbelief. Had that really just happened. Would it be possible to keep a rental car for a week longer than expected before the company would call?

'Der der der derrr, Der der der derrr, Der der der der deeeeerrrrr.'
"Hello. Claire speaking"
'Hello Madam. This is Imperial Rental Cars. We are calling about the car you had last week. We have not received it back. Can you please tell us where it is?'
"Yes. I returned it to Johannesburg airport over a week ago. One of your colleagues has just called me about this."
'When Madam?'
"Just now. I suggest you call your office at the Joburg airport and see if they can tell you where the car is now."
'Ok, thank you Madam'

Now, I just wanted to go home!

'Der der der derrr, Der der der derrr, Der der der der deeeeerrrrr.'

(I don't believe it. Not again!)

"Hello. Claire speaking"
'Hi Claire.'
"Rich? Is that you?"
'Yep. How are you?'
"Bloody Hell! Where are you?"
'Don't worry I am in the UK'
"Crickey. Rich! Wow! What's up?'
"Well, I thought I would call and see how you are......and finally give you old Lizzie's address.'
"Wow. Thanks. Well, I'm fine, how are you? When are you and Dom going to come and stay for a while?"

So there in darkness of Cape Town airport I sat and chatted to one of my oldest and most precious friends. The crowds began to mill around, the planes began to make it through the storm, spewing forth passengers who seemed glad to be back on firm ground.

"Look Rich, I have to go, but I can't quite believe that you called. Thank you so much. There really is a real world out there!"

And with that he was gone. Bam! What a moment!
Life here in South Africa is so different that I just don't try and explain it to the people back home. I think that they would find it hard to remain interested in many ways, my perceptions change so often.

It has taken me a while to learn to live in the developed developing world. A world that is not one thing or another. And with that concentration on the present it is easy to forget about the world I left behind. E-mail is such an easy way of keeping in contact that the old fashioned ways of staying in touch fade away. But a phone call, hearing the voice through the air, is so much more powerful. So much more personal. Those few minutes on the phone felt like receiving the most wonderful Christmas present in the world. I suppose I felt like I was remembered back in the old world. That the difficult days were worth it as I hadn't been erased.

My heart flipped a beat for the remainder of my flight home. It had been an extraordinary powerless day in South Africa.
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