Castles in the air
The American family having breakfast at the table next to me had arrived in Cape Town the day before. The parents, their silver hair corralled by baseball caps and their pastel golf shirts neatly ironed, were exclaiming over their eggs.
So good, these eggs! The eggs? Yes, so good! Oh, I know, I can't believe how good my eggs are. Are your eggs also this good? You bet they are.
Their two children, loose-limbed camel-faced college students, gazed at the mountain and tried not to be annoyed by the ritualised fussing of their parents.
Soon the breakfast was cleared away and replaced by an array of brochures and maps. All four of them leaned in, silent and intent. Then the father said, "We should go to the Castle."
"That would be wonderful," said the mother. "Wouldn't that be wonderful? Where is it?"
The father peered at a map more closely but, before he could speak, the son pointed confidently at something above and behind my head. "It's right there," he said.
They all looked. I looked too. He was pointing at the cable-car station on top of Table Mountain. His father said, "Oh, yep, gotcha, there it is."
I wondered if I should say something, but the daughter was speaking now, pointing at the Company's Garden in the middle of the map. "You'd think the company would want to put their name on their own garden," she said. "I wonder if it's, like, Microsoft or something?"
"No," said the mother, "it would be something older, from Revolutionary times. I read that white people came ashore for the first time at the Waterfront."
It struck me then just how haphazard their adventure was. The documents on the table had been harvested entirely at random, perhaps no more than an hour before as they left their guesthouse. The maps meant nothing to them: the father spent 30 seconds studying the peninsula upside down before his wife turned it around for him.
They had come to a new world armed not with knowledge but with a kind of bonny aimlessness and optimistic ignorance. It made me wonder why exactly they had chosen Cape Town. Had they thrown a dart at a world map?
But I suppose the real question is: why does anyone travel anywhere? If it were only for luxury and laffs, as the brochures insist, how would we explain the fact that even Afghanistan is luring in a trickle of tourists? It might not be the 15000 a year claimed by government sources, but we can still be pretty sure that right now there is at least one non-Afghan sitting in a hotel in Kabul wearing Kevlar Crocs and flame-retardant board shorts.
Cape Town is fond of calling itself a major tourist destination so the publication last week of a list of the world's favourite tourist destinations must have felt like a slap in the face with an overpriced snoek. How can it be that Riyadh, a scatter of concrete cubes dropped in a wasteland, whose only defining features are dust storms and medieval misogyny, gets more than twice as many visitors as Cape Town? Surely it can't just be down to bookings for annual woman-hating conventions?
But perhaps concrete reality doesn't have much to do with our choices. Maybe we go to certain places because other people have gone there before us, and in going have created new cities made of fantasy and projection, erecting an almost tangible facade of glamour over the real bricks and sewers and alleys. The Paris you visit as a tourist is a place like this; a gigantic confection constructed almost entirely out of tourists' wishes that it will be as wonderful as they have always dreamed.
Maybe that was why my Americans hadn't done any homework. They were travelling in search of a diffuse "something" that they felt they lacked back at home, a flicker of wonder that had become jaded or threadbare in the relentlessness of real life. They had looked at a map and that flicker had seemed to spark most brightly over Cape Town.
Perhaps they had also understood that the flicker was a fragile thing, easily snuffed by exposing it to the cold breath of reality. The more they knew about the real Cape Town, the less likely they were to enjoy the fantasy they had followed here.
So I decided not to tell them that the Castle was a squat fort in a bog, or that there hadn't been a shopping centre on the beach when Van Riebeeck arrived. Their Cape Town was a more interesting one than mine, perhaps even an enviable place, with its brutalist castle on a mountain crag. And if they didn't like it, well, next year there's always Riyadh.