This is Africa!

Two women compare notes on how business is going in Camps Bay, South Africa

After a week’s worth of competition with other tourists to capture the ideal photo of all the scenic sites in and around Cape Town, we decide we need a vacation from our vacation and take a day off to go to the beach.

In Cape Town, you have the unusual choice of three oceans: Atlantic, Indian and Southern, aka the Antarctic. (I could be wrong, but I believe there is only one other place in the world where three major bodies of water converge and that is Cape Horn in South America.)

We throw the proverbial dart at the map and it lands on Camps Bay on the Atlantic side. After a scenic drive on the wrong side of the road (yes, South Africans drive on the left), winding through jutted mountains that appear as though they have been carved with a giant chisel, we descend into a quaint little seaside town.

It’s amazing how much coastal villages look the same throughout the world. Maybe it’s in the (salt) air. There’s always an element of kitsch, with cute little stores and shops, usually with names that are puns for something related to waves, sand, nautical terms and other maritime jargon. The “Surf’s Up” or the “Salty Dog,” for instance.

We hit a bit of the morning commute traffic but eventually see the beach stretched out parallel to the main road in town. All we need to do is navigate to find a spot to park. As we slow to survey any openings, we are greeted by a man adorned in a fluorescent, lime-green nylon vest, the kind crossing guards might wear. He is directing us to a better spot just a few car lengths ahead.

We are not sure if he is a city employee or just some Good Samaritan. But we follow his advice and take the slot. There are no meters and there are no signs for how long we can stay here.

“I think parking is free and we probably just give him a tip to watch our car,” says Sherry, ever the astute Third World Citizen.

We decide on 50 Rand, about $3.70 U.S. I hand him the bill and he is pleasantly surprised.

“Thank you, boss,” he says. He assures us he will take good care of the vehicle in our absence.

It is only a few steps to the beach, but before we set foot on the wide, white swath of sand, we are approached by a vendor renting umbrellas and chairs. We negotiate a price and he leads us to a spot with parasol in hand. He whistles to a colleague and signals to him to bring the chairs.

In a few moments we are set up, and just in time. It is only 9:30 a.m., and even though the weather is mild and a refreshing breeze is blowing, the sun is demonstrating its UV prowess and promising more of the same as the day progresses.

Going in for the close

No sooner are we seated, when we are approached by yet another vendor. Before we can even say “No, not today,” he has laid out some art work and he is explaining the situation in each painting.

He has a broad smile and a mop of dreadlocks perched on his head. He appears to be influenced by Bob Marley and within a few moments he coincidentally confirms his admiration for the late Jamaican singer-songwriter sensation.

One thing we don’t need right now is a painting. We are vagabonds, traveling the world. But the guy is making jokes and is clearly having a good time just trying to sell us something. His painting technique is not all that unusual or unique, and for all we know they aren’t even his original works. But man, the guy is a good salesman.

He has about 20 or 30 pieces on canvas. He rolls them out and starts describing the back story to each one. He is attentively watching our every reaction, our facial expressions, our interaction with one another.

He begins to build a pile of those we have outright rejected and another pile for those we have not yet summarily dismissed. He is clearly working to close a deal and he knows the algorithm for how to get there.

He shows us one of a man with two women.

“He has two wives. Two wives: twice as much trouble,” he says.

The lines are no doubt rehearsed but, hey, so are any stand-up comic’s. And he’s got the delivery and the timing down.

On several of the paintings he has inscribed the initials “TIA.”

“Do you know about TIA?” he inquires. We do not.

“TIA is ‘This is Africa.’ We give him a quizzical glance.

“If I am going to a party and I say I will be there at 8 but I don’t show up until 9, the guy will say, ‘Hey, you said 8.’ And I will say, ‘Hey, man, This is Africa!’ We don’t have hours!” His laugh is contagious.

The pile of paintings is eventually narrowed down to three. There is one we both agree on, and then there is one Sherry favors and one that I kind of, sort of don’t mind. We are clearly the perfect mark.

He gives us a price for the one we agree on.

“Now we bargain,” he says, “like at the bazaar.” He begins to explain how bargaining works, but we make it clear we weren’t born yesterday, just maybe two days prior.

So he gives us a price we cannot refuse for the three works of art, and it is then we realize we do not have enough South African Rand.

He inquires whether we have any other currency. He’ll take Euros, U.S. dollars, Japanese Yen. “But not Zimbabwe dollars!” He again laughs. “Not even a million Zimbabwe dollars!” Hyperinflation in that country has rendered their currency worthless.

I reveal, much to Sherry’s ever-vigilant Third-World wariness, that I do have some U.S. currency. The problem is that the smallest bill I have is a $100 denomination.

“No problem,” he says. “I will take it and get change from my brother.” He points to the other side of the beach.

Sherry’s look is enough for him to realize exactly how preposterous this proposal is. He offers to leave all his paintings and the 100 Rand bill he has to get the change. Sherry is still having none of it.

No problem, he says; he’ll just get enough Rand from his brother and be right back. He even leaves his paintings with us in good faith.

He is off in a flash and quickly returns with the change. We make the exchange.

“Man, 100 dollars,” he says. “I would sell my entire country for 100 dollars.” He is laughing. “But not my mother! No, not my mother. You can have my brother, though, just not my mother.”

We bid adieu to our new friend. We are still smiling. But Sherry shakes her head in disbelief that we just bought the paintings and she is now worried that the other vendors on the beach will see us as easy prey.

Sure enough, other vendors approach us. But they are pleasant and polite.

As the beach population grows, so too do the vendors. And as the temperature rises, there are hawkers selling Coke, ice cream and cold water. Each has a distinctive sing-song advertisement for his refreshments.

“Ice, ice, ice cream, cold water Coke,” sings one.

“Brrr, brrr, water, coke,” says another.

We make it through the rest of the day without unwittingly contributing any more Rand to the local economy. We return to the car, where our parking attendant shows us that everything is still in tact. No broken windows or scratches, he says.

As we drive away, Sherry is still in disbelief that we fell for the sale pitch, but also admits that the guy was good, a far better salesman than painter, in fact.

Me, I’m a bit more philosophical about the whole transaction.

It’s like going to Las Vegas to gamble. If you go and know you’re going to lose but you do it just for the entertainment, then you got your money’s worth.

We got our money’s worth.