The extra-terrestrial experience begins with a five-minute check-in and a stonking breakfast at Lanseria airport. Never again, I promise myself, will I unnecessarily go through the horrors of OR Tambo. Two hours later, the Mother City. Or as it turns out, the Mother Ship.
To a Lowvelder, it is undeniable. Cape Town is another world. Capetonians are aliens. As alien as Marmite-flavoured rice cakes and Badger-friendly muesli.
“So, what did you do in the holidays?” Two students, recently returned to the centre of their studies, conversation-locked and loafing, dangling kikois and piercings down Dock Road.
“Sleeping. A lot of sleeping. It was good. I love sleeping. You?”
“I smoked a lot of weed”
“Yeah, great. I love smoking weed. Next year I am thinking of getting a job at Afriski, but this year, it was weed.”
The weather is unseasonably warm. The Waterfront brims with childish smiles and confusion-wracked parents orienteering their offspring through the diversions and interpreting the endless stalk-mounted signs in front of strands of candy tape. Everything, it seems, is temporarily elsewhere.
“Arts & Wellness Craft Curios is temporarily at the Craft Centre in North Wharf” reads one such piece of advice. Wellness is very Capetonian, I think to myself.
At the Aquarium, more signs: “The Rockhopper Penguins are temporarily in the kelp forest. The Outside Penguins are temporarily on the beach upstairs.” Probably smoking weed, I reckon.
By a dry dock: “Bypass route available when closed.” Bypass route to where? For whom? Dry boats?
“Warning Cannons Firing”. Where? At whom?
Cannons notwithstanding, Cape Town is a Hard Hat Area. It will be wonderful when it is finished but for now, just as the pavements are closed, so is the skyline filled with cranes. And while we visitors from up-country herd our mini-hordes from one attraction to the next, Capetonians hibernate rather than don protective clothing to negotiate the detours.
Burying themselves in shopping malls and coffee shops where the ambient temperature is 22 degrees, they wear hibernal long coats and woolly hats. They hang out in supermarkets with specialist sections appealing to unusual diets. Their rice cakes really are Marmite-flavoured – “Rice cakes will never have to be bland and boring again now that we have baked them with lovely Marmite” says the packet, apparently not taking into account that this judgemental measure could be avoided by not making any rice cakes at all. They still eat like polystyrene, however Marmitey. And Cape Town’s Muesli really is badger-friendly. What can this mean? No badgers were hurt in the harvesting of the wheat flakes or the drying of the raisins? How unsurprising.
A coffee shop in Mouille Point. Clutching a laptop, a pale, scarf-swathed, leather-clad maiden in knee-length boots, to the not-so-pale waitress: “You can feel the South-Easter coming in. The ‘marntin’ is going to be buried in cloud this afternoon. I don’t know whether to face the sea or look inland from under the heater. Oh, decisions! What do you think? Anyway, darling, bring me cappuccino, you know the way I like it, not more than half a centimetre of foam and min sprinkle on the top.”
I smile at her over my perfectly normal cappuccino but she ignores me. It all becomes clear. These creatures from another world can’t actually see us. This is not ET. It is The Sixth Sense. They look straight through us because they don’t know we are there. Like the penguins, we are temporarily elsewhere. But it stops them badgering us about the depth of our foam and what flavour rice cakes to buy.