A Day on the Big Red Bus

cpt02Cape Town, South Africa – August 2015

It is so often said that one of the main advantages of travel is that it takes us out of our comfort zones. For the seasoned traveler, however, it is easy to get stuck in our own travel comfort zones. Many prefer organized group tours. Every activity is rigidly planned. No need to stress about getting from here to there. Others, like myself, choose independence and spontaneity, often at the expense of convenience. There are many in-betweens, but we rarely immerse ourselves in other tourist realms.

As the red double-decker bus approaches the stop, I take a deep breath. It’s the first bus of the day. It’s low season in Cape Town. Maybe it won’t be full. Please don’t be full. The bus comes to a halt. A long, luxurious exhale. It’s almost empty. Three women and I are the only passengers at this stop. I buy a ticket and take a seat inside. It’s too chilly to sit on the upper deck.

Anyone who has traveled around Europe and elsewhere can recognize the distinctive Hop On/Hop Off buses. They ferry people from one major tourist attraction to the next. Faces turned in unison, following the instructions of the tiny voice in their red earphones. I used to snicker as I watched them pass. I’d never be caught dead, I’d tell myself, upper lip curled into a sneer.

Well, here I am. The travel snobbery of my youth has dissipated. I enjoy the challenge of navigating public transport. The authenticity of moving around with locals. However, Cape Town is just too spread out, and then there are the safety issues of using the public transport.

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This was taken late afternoon the following day during a return visit to Kirstenbosch.

I am on the Blue route. First stop: Kirstenbosch Gardens. A dull green blankets the slopes below the cliffs and canyons of Table Mountain. Too early yet for the famous wildflowers. The sun blazes down. The kind of sunshine that erases contrast and personality. After a brisk stroll through the paths, I head back to the bus stop. There are no other stops along this route that I wish to visit, so I settle into the seat. The bus barrels down the winding coast road, passing the beach enclaves of Camp’s Bay and Green Point. How tranquil it all seems. I’m told it’s a different place when the sun goes down.

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At the V&A Waterfront, I slam a double espresso and wolf down two chocolate muffins before changing to the Red route. Lunch of champions. An elderly couple sits on the bench by the bus. The man is sporting black socks, white sneakers, and Bermuda shorts. His blue Hawaiian shirt strains against his belly. Windblown gray hair, unruly beard. He grips an old-fashioned cane.

“How long do we have to wait? What’s included? Is it a real tour?” A nasally pinch to his voice. Not pronounced enough to be Michigan. Indiana or Ohio, maybe. He taps his cane forcefully on the pavement.

“We’ll just have to see,” his wife mumbles in the absent way of someone used to questions for which the answers will never be satisfactory.

The bus door opens. I flash my ticket. The driver hands me some earphones. “You should sit on the upper deck.” He smiles. I return the smile and take his advice.

Wheezing and mumbling. The old man heaves himself up the stairs. His eyes harden when he catches sight of me. His wife sits two seats in front of me. He sits on the opposite side of the aisle from her.  “Aren’t we supposed to get earphones? I can’t believe they didn’t give us any!” He bangs his cane on the floor.

His wife shrugs. “Guess not.”

I look down at the little red earphones in my grasp. Still in the plastic. My own perceptions are preferable to those of a tinny, disembodied drone. I bite my cheek, and then tap the lady on her shoulder. “Here, I won’t use them.”

“Oh! Thank you!” She takes them out of the package and inserts them into her ears.

The old man twists around. Bushy eyebrows furrowed over a glare of petulant fury. Ruddy jowls aquiver.

The slightest lift of eyebrows is my reply. Easy now, Captain Ahab, ’tis not I the source of thy deprivation.

He twists back around. Tap, tap, tap.

His wife takes the earphones out and passes them to him. He grabs them and shoves them in his ears without a word.

I shake my head and turn away. They are instantly forgotten as I take in the view. The bus is worth taking, if only for this perspective of a city. You can look down at the little people going about their day. I recognize the amusement in their eyes as they watch us pass. Yes, I’m a dork! Hello! The buildings rise beside rather than above.

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The massive monolith of Table Mountain looms closer. It reminds me of the mesas along Highway 666 in New Mexico. They seemed like forbidding fossils. Table Mountain glows. I stifle the pang of disappointment at not having enough time to hike it.

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The bus empties at the Cableway stop. In just a few minutes, I find myself at the top. Most of the tourists don’t venture far from the Cableway area, so I soon find a tranquil trail to walk. A cool breeze blows, carrying distant voices, but it is not long before they vanish into the silence. I sit on a rock and stare down the peninsula. The Cape of Good Hope is out there somewhere. And, far beyond, Antarctica.

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The sun’s relentless glide towards the horizon. I rouse myself and head back to the Cableway. The bus meanders almost the same route as this morning’s. Round and round again. I recognize the short, stubby palm trees at Camp’s Bay. Solitary Lion’s Head peak. How quickly places become familiar nowadays.

Back at the V&A Waterfront, I take the Yellow route to Long Street. I can grab a quick dinner and take out some cash before heading back to the guesthouse. It is the end of the day, so a cashier is also catching a ride back to the main office. He sits across the aisle, and then turns to face me. He introduces himself. He is from Zimbabwe.

He leans close, strokes his chin, lifts his eyebrows up and down as he looks me up and down. “WhereareyoufromwhatdidyouseetodaydoyoulikeCapeTown…”

I keep my expression neutral. “I’m originally from America, but now my husband and I live in Prague.”

The mention of husband provokes the obligatory, “Why isn’t he here with you?”

I know, by now, that no matter what I answer, it won’t wipe away the knowing smirk. My voice tightens as I give the usual excuses: he has too much work, he would love to be here, we’ll come back together one day. The more the “h” word is mentioned, the deeper the smirk.

I used to think that solo female travelers fall off the male radar as they age. However, we simply move into a different zone. Youthful beauty has been edged out by middle-aged desperation. If the husband is absent, it’s because there is a problem. We are on the hunt for “adventure”. Wink, wink. Starved for compliments and attention, we are laughably easy to seduce. I’m grateful that my ego doesn’t require such empty flattery.

“But what about you? Do you miss Zimbabwe?” Best thing to do is switch the focus back to him.

His shoulders slacken. He relaxes into the seat. For the rest of the short ride, he speaks about the country he wishes to return to one day.

I feel his eyes on my back, cunning and fierce, as I scurry across Long Street. I try to think about dinner, in an attempt to shake off the ickiness. The vague shame. But my appetite is gone. The issues that we try to escape always find a way to tag along, no matter how small the backpack and how hectic the itinerary. He would be here with me if he could, wouldn’t he? I want him with me, don’t I? I prefer to travel alone. I really do. But why is that?

Evening’s long shadows creep along the pavement. I quicken my steps in a futile attempt to outrun them.