It was just past 8 am when I boarded. I paused to let a ground crew lady make her way out of the cockpit and leave the plane.

Normally ground crew come on board to sign off on flight manifests, and deal with other important parts of the connection between airliner and ground. Airplanes are an intrinsic part of my life, and I ride them like most people take buses.

I was chatting to the British Airways duty manager pre-flight, and he gave me some terrible news: all the company ground staff were about to lose their jobs, save for a handful of line managers.

British Airways have been doing this all over Europe, part of the ruthless requirements of cost-cutting, and the worship of the God Profit. Not Prophet. BA is a listed corporation, it has earnings estimates to meet and stockholders to please.

The guys on the trading desks also lose their jobs, including the analysts who calculate those EPS, the people who make buy, hold, or sell recommendations on the stock market.

One of my friends turned fifty recently, and the London corporation that employed him said goodbye. Stocks and bonds are a young man’s game. And I do mean men―I don’t have the stats at hand, but take my word for it, finance is a guy’s world. Maybe that’s why it’s so fucked up.

My journey will take me to the Western Cape. A veteran of the tropics once told me disparagingly that “Cape Town isn’t Africa.” For him Africa means  the oppresive heat of the January rains, and the dry monsoon season when the Mozambican winds push the dhows east across the Indian Ocean to Calicut.

In all fairness, I see Morocco and other North African nations in a similar light. But I disagree about the Cape. Okay, there’s no malaria, and it’s coming up to mid-winter here right now, but Africa it most definitely is.

In The India Road I mention that the latitudes of Lisbon and the Cape are pretty similar. And the weather is too, although the Cape gets the Agulhas current, named after the Portuguese word for needles. Matter of fact, five hundred years ago, Portugal named practically all the region.

The Lusitanian sailors used hagiography to christen almost all the coastal features. Everyone on board was a fundamentalist, in the religious sense of the word―I suppose they had to be, to sail into the complete unknown in a fifty ton caravel.

It’s unbelievable that the journey that took Bartolomeu Dias six months, tacking all the way down the Namibian coast, then rounding the Cape, will take me double that in hours.

Dias passed nowhere near Robben Island on his way east to Angra de São Brás, present-day Mossel Bay.

Dias was nowhere near Robben Island on his way east to Angra de São Brás, present-day Mossel Bay—he sailed much further south to round the Cape of Storms. He may however have passed the island where Mandela was imprisoned on his way back from the Great Fish River, the ‘Rio do Infante’.

During the 1960s, when the South African regime was thick as thieves with the Portuguese dictator Salazar, both SAA and TAP, the national flag carriers, were forbidden from overflying central Africa. The apartheid policy, and the Portuguese colonial wars in Mozambique and Angola, were a poisonous thorn in the side of the newly independent central African states, and their airspace was off limits.

My South African friends have told me to expect thunder and rain, and chilly winter weather. “It’s not called the Cape of Storms for nothing,” one of them told me.

“Well, it’s been called the Cape of Good Hope since 1488, courtesy of the Perfect Prince.”

Which raises an interesting question. When I was little, all the kids who studied Portuguese history learnt that the famous cape had been called the Cape of Storms up until the time when Dias rounded it. The sailors believed it was home to the giant Adamastor, who objected to the presence of the Portuguese caravels, and expressed his distaste by tossing them into the air and sinking them.

However, there is no record, either written or anecdotal, of any expedition to the cape prior to Dias. The voyages of Diogo Cão, the man who discovered the mouth of the Congo in the 1482, only took him as far south as Namibia. Could it be that there were other intermediate expeditions, the memory of which, like their vessels, disappeared forever?

There is the much debated ‘rule of silence’, the política do sigilo of King John II. This supposed exercise in disinformation was intended to hide the Portuguese secrets from the crown of Castille. And if there were secret documents, the huge Lisbon earthquake of 1755, and the fire that followed, will have destroyed them.

But given Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope on his first attempt, who gave it the original name? Certainly not other European nations, since no one was even certain whether Africa was connected to the southern ends of the world. I suspect the waters just south of where I’m writing these words will hold that secret forever.

Laitude position of the many landmarks registered in the captain's log during the journey to the Cape.

Laitude position of the many landmarks recorded in vessel logbooks during the Portuguese journeys to Africa in the XVth century.

The British Airways plane was fully boarded. The ground crew lady was standing in the doorway, saying a few last words to the ground staff. I knew it was her last day.

“I want to tell you how sorry I am. I’m so grateful for all the wonderful care all of you gave me over the past years.”

She looked at me, smiled, and said thank-you. Then her face broke, and she burst into uncontrollable tears. Streaming, smudging her make-up. Airlines and make-up go hand in hand. It was like a river.

I held out my arms and hugged her, and I felt tears of my own well up. She looked up at me, two strangers bound by something machines will never understand. Sometimes crying helps.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.


One Response to “Tears”

  1. Miriam Says:

    Sometimes someone who cares makes the difference and helps a lot!

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