Travelogue II: Escape to the Dark Continent

On Thursday, March 31, I departed around 8am from Philadelphia, bound for Stellenbosch, Western Cape, South Africa. I flew Delta to their hub in Minneapolis; then KLM overnight to Amsterdam; and finally, the 12-hour, 6,000-mile flight the length of Africa to Cape Town, arriving about 10pm on Friday evening.

This was my fourth time “hopping the Pond” overnight from the US to Europe, and it never gets any easier. At 6’3″ (190.5cm for you metric folks out there), trying to sleep in the economy seats on a plane is always a losing proposition for me. I’ve tried every position: pillow behind my lower back, pillow under my thighs, leaning back, leaning sideways, slumped over forward–no luck. Even two glasses of wine with dinner couldn’t do the trick. I figured I’d be better off reading as long as I could, and then watching movies to pass the eight hours.

Flying a total of forty hours to Cape Town and back, I watched quite a few movies and TV shows–too many to count. I can only read for so long before my neck starts to hurt, or I get too tired to concentrate. Here’s a brief account of some movies I watched–some of which I’m not very proud of, but hopefully my mistakes can be your wisdom:

  • The American — A bland action film starring George Clooney as an American assassin in Europe.  He hides out in Italy while on a job, and falls in love with a prostitute.  Boring, but mercifully short.  Don’t bother.
  • Red — An action comedy with Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren and Morgan Freeman.  Not the best movie ever by a long shot, but a fun date-night rental.
  • Black Swan — I figured I’d give it a shot because it won all those awards, and I like Natalie Portman.  Hyperdramatic, strange–sexualized in puzzling ways.  Full of flat characters; Portman’s is the only one that develops–if going mad can be considered a development.  I didn’t find it that interesting–certainly not worth the drug and sexual content.
  • Little Fockers — The threequal to Meet the Parents.  Full of awkward moments that are hilarious to some and just painful to others.  As much as I like Stiller and De Niro, this one’s probably not worth watching.
  • The Fighter — A classic sports-hero-comes-from-working-class-background-and-defeats-the-odds-achieving-pinacle-of-success movie–but so much more than that.  This movie is about family relationships and tough love.  I love Amy Adams.  Definitely recommended, but the R-rating for language and drugs is well-deserved.
  • The Tourist — I figured it out within 20 minutes.  Canned plot; some funny moments, but mostly just a star-driven box-office draw attempt.  Whatevs.
  • Easy A — Not just another teen sex-comedy–though, unfortunately, the plot revolves around the main character’s falsified sexual CV.  There actually a lot of truth here about the gravity of sex, the importance of a good reputation, and the double-standard that exists in our culture for women’s and men’s sexuality.  Probably good to watch if you’re in youth ministry, or with a thinking teen or young person.  But the vulgarity undercuts the film’s attempt to elevate sex as something to be treasured and taken seriously.
  • The Killing Room — A minimalistically produced, bottle-episode thriller.  Brutal, exciting and unpredictable.  It probably had the chance to say something profound, but I don’t think it really did–then again, I was so tired at this point that I may have missed it.

But I digest…
Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam was one of the more interesting airports I’ve been through.  It is designed particularly well for layovers, since it handles so much traffic as a hub in Europe.  There is a rest area in the center section, with couches and laptop stations (and an hour of free WiFi!).  Among all the shops where you can purchase typically Dutch products at hefty markup prices, there is a small mini-museum featuring paintings of lesser-known Dutch masters.  As a fan of 17th-century Dutch paintings, I found this little display a welcome diversion, a chance to walk around and enjoy a few high-brow intellectual moments after many tired hours of watching inane films in a cramped aluminum tube.  There were no Van Goghs or Vermeers, but beautiful nonetheless.  Schiphol also offers the free use of small handcarts, which are found in clusters all around the terminals.  In American airports you typically pay to use a cart, but these are free and everywhere.  There were little barriers that would prevent the carts from being taken outside or on escalators, but other than that you could take them anywhere, leave them anywhere, and find another one just about anywhere–delightful.
The flight-tracker on the Amsterdam-Cape Town flight took us over quite a few countries in Africa: Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo (Zaire), Angola, and Namibia.  It made me think about the little I know of current events in those countries–Libya being most prominently in the news at that time.  A graduate seminar on colonialism at Stellenbosch the next week made me think about the condescension many Westerners (like me) express toward Africans in thinking that we can be the solution to their problems.  Even the term “Africa” is a Latin word applied collectively to a land mass of 11,700,000 mi² that is home to a billion people from thousands of different ethnic groups which have little or nothing in common with one another.
I arrived in Cape Town that evening, went through customs, and had to pay a R110 (about $15) tariff on CDs I would mail for my friend, Gordon, to friends on his behalf.  Protectionist neanderthals…  I successfully figured out how to use a pay phone to call Gordon’s friend, Craig, a young, local pastor whom I had never met but who graciously agreed to pick me up and let me crash at his place.  After some confusion about the pickup location, we found each other at the airport.  When we got to his home, I showered and then crashed hard, grateful after thirty-six hours without sleep.
Next installment: Cape Town to Stellenbosch.

About Benj

I’m a native North Jerseyan, transplanted to Pennsylvania...lived and taught in Eastern Europe for six years…Old Testament professor, ordained minister, occasional liturgist…husband to Corrie…father to Daniel and Elizabeth.
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