Dispatch 11:
Leaving South Africa

After nearly two weeks on the road, a trip packed with events and experiences, and a nice five-day run in one hotel in Cape Town, comes the inevitable return trip -- the moment when one must uproot, to somehow cram all one’s clothes and things back into the strained suitcase one final time. That suitcase is the big hurdle as you round into the home stretch. Your home base is reeling you in.

Once you have crammed, purged, crammed again and sat on your suitcase until you can zip it up and leave, then you enter trip rewind. All the connections and landmarks parade by in reverse: the ride to the airport – how different it feels going out! You have an intimacy with the place you are leaving. When you came it was just an airport.

My flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg turned out to be an unusually rewarding experience for what seemed to be just serendipity, but may also be seen as a remarkable reflection of the unique atmosphere of South Africa at this rare moment in history.

Soon after I found my seat, a couple came up and the woman asked if I would trade seats with her so she could sit next to her husband. Ever since a time when my wife was flying coast to coast with our 10-year-old daughter and no one would trade seats with them so they could ride together, I’ve taken special pleasure when I get the opportunity to do something so easy for me and so valuable to someone else.

As I found my new seat I saw it was a window seat beside a man already sitting down, but he got up very cheerfully and beckoned me – welcomed me to sit. He was a light-skinned man with receding red hair and a red beard, a hint of freckles in his complexion. He was neatly dressed in a blue blazer with a tie and khakis.

Without being the slightest bit obtrusive, he was just very friendly and courteous. When drinks came, he gestured a toast and practically whispered “Cheers!” When the food came he said, “Bon appetit.”

When I saw the same black mountains that had arrested my attention flying in, I ventured to ask him if he knew the name of the mountain range. He wasn’t sure, but went out of his way to tell me everything he could in the context of my question. There are several mountain ranges around Cape Town, he said, and started to name them. He wasn’t sure which one I was looking at. But what was striking was how eager he seemed to be to be helpful.

At the same time, he was very conscientious about not invading my space, not giving me the slightest hint of intruding upon me in any way. I showed him an article in the in-flight magazine about how the Greeks had discovered something close to today’s information technology and just cast it aside, and we had a discussion for a minute, then left each other alone again.

Finally at the end of the ride, when you are descending for landing, people start shifting around, rousing themselves, and then neighbors feel they can open up and say a few words because they no longer risk getting trapped in an interminable conversation with a bore.

He asked me if was visiting, and why. I told him I was attending the jazz festival and writing for the travel industry about South Africa as a cultural destination. He told me he was in the military stationed in Pretoria.

He said, “I think we have a great opportunity to bring it all together” -- he pointed his outstretched fingers toward each other and brought them together until the fingers clasped as in a double fist – “and to do it right for our children and their children. I hope the people in the future will look back at our generation and say, ‘They were good. They got it right!’”

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