Jun 26, 2006

CAPE TOWN, South Africa –  "The Indian Ocean and the Atlantic mix there," a seven-year-old announces.

"No, wait. There!" He jabs a finger offshore, where currents swirl in paisley patterns.

The line of demarcation should be clear, according to local lore. The battle-of-the-blues is, after all, one of the Natural Wonders of World.

Sunset honies the coastal crags and distracts from the debate. We're atop Table Mountain, Cape Town's flat-topped icon.

Already, my blanket enthusiasm is tempered. Corrugated steel shanties stretch over the horizon in the townships. Champagne is hard to swallow, after such sights.

"At least we've managed to wire in electricity," our guide Barbara says. "We are trying to alleviate the poverty. It's South Africa's biggest challenge."

My companions – bank travel-club organizers – clink their bubbly flutes. I stare towards Robben Island, the storm-lashed fortress that imprisoned Nelson Mandela for 18 years, now a symbol of anti-apartheid's triumph.

How can I understand anything about this country in a few days? And from such a bubble of privilege?

I wander over to the waitress. "Do you pour champagne all day up here?"

"Yes," she laughs. "It's a good job. And the view is pretty."

"Ever walked up?"

"Maybe someday. The hill is so steep."

"What do I absolutely need to see while I'm here?"

Suddenly serious, the black woman urges: "Robben Island. It is the heart of the people."

"Have you been?"

"Not yet. I am afraid."

"Of ghosts?"

"No. Of my emotions. I will be so overwhelmed. I will cry and cry."

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