Imagination is a blessing and a curse for travelers.
When planning a vacation or a travel adventure, an imagination is as crucial to the process as is a good guidebook and maps. Imagination, after all, is what ignites the travel bug in many of us. We imagine what other parts of the world might look like, what other people might be like, what other food might taste like. We spin globes, when we can still find them, and place a finger on the moving orb to stop the movement and land on a location we might fantasize about visiting. We spread maps and atlases over tables and floors thinking, “I could go here.” Then we turn the page and exclaim, “Or, I could go here!”
A photo of a sun-kissed beach in Mexico becomes the screensaver on our computer as we contemplate a break from the cold, dark days of winter. We envision a three-hour, five-course dinner in a bistro in a quiet arrondissement of Paris as we eat breakfast cereal for dinner, standing at the counter in our kitchen after a long day at the office. We picture ourselves sitting in the center section of a landmark theater in London’s West End enjoying the premiere of a new musical while we watch a rerun of “Two And a Half Men” for the umpteenth time and count, in our head, the number of days before we board a plane for some distant site and, please God, a break from our daily routine.
Imagination, to a traveler, is what makes the list of destinations one wishes to see and experience increase, rather than decrease, with every trip taken. But our imagination can also let us down when we arrive at a much-contemplated destination only to discover that it was prettier or more exotic or just plain different in our mind than it is in reality. Those disappointments aren’t enough to keep us home because for every letdown there are many more times when the real thing far exceeds our imagination. Still, the duds can be quiet disheartening.
Quite by chance, I came across one of Cape Town’s best-kept secrets: a hotel comprised of ten decommissioned train coaches from the old Rhodesian Railway, tucked away at Monument Station in the very center of the Mother City. Having never heard of this place before, in over a decade of visiting Cape Town, I didn’t quite trust the information I had been given. As soon as I got to a computer, I googled “African Train Lodge.” When the hotel’s home page appeared on my screen, confirming the information I had been given, I excitedly made a booking to spend one night in a vintage rail car. I couldn’t wait! In an anticipation of my stay, I let my imagination run free.
In my mind, I would be mingling with world travelers who were choosing to stay at this off-the-beaten-path hotel because it was a totally unique venue. There would be train enthusiasts eager to share their knowledge with me: “Why, yes, these rail cars completed their service in the former Rhodesia in 1950.” There would be locals who would explain that the sleeper cars on the Table Mountain side of the hotel, “Drakensburg, Amatola, Outeniqua and Tafelberg are all named for mountains in South Africa; while those on the Atlantic Ocean side of the hotel, Sabie, Tugela, Breede and Liesbeek, are named after rivers in our Rainbow Nation.”
These imaginary conversations would happen in the bar car as we drank gin and tonics, pausing our small talk momentarily to allow the noisy Metroliner or Shosholoza Meyl trains to pass by, before resuming our delightful conversation. We would talk about our favorite trips in lifetimes of travel. I might join a couple, who are spending their retirement traveling around the world, at their table in the dining car for dinner, more conversation and a bottle of wine. Following a full evening of storytelling and the exchange of contact information, I would take a late night dip in the cooling pool before retiring to my finely appointed coach. While I wouldn’t drift off to sleep to the sound and gentle movement of a moving train, I could imagine the train barreling down the tracks to some faraway location in the distant past.
That’s what imagination will do to you when you travel. You think, based on a website or a brochure, that you are headed to an oasis. But when you arrive, you find yourself in a desert – and not one of those deserts you fantasized about visiting.
Although I had made a reservation online for the African Train Lodge, no confirmation of my booking could be found on the computer when I checked in. Not to worry, the accommodating clerk told me, there were plenty of compartments available. It was summer after all, and the 100-degree temperature earlier in the week had scared off guests who didn’t want to stay in a windowless, airconditionless, motionless, train carriage in the heart of the city.
I paid my 250 rand for the evening – the equivalent of $35 – plus an additional 50 rand for a towel. (Though I would get 30 rand back if I returned the towel when I checked out.) The surcharge for the towel should have been an indication that I wouldn’t be drinking sherry in the bar car with multi-lingual guests.
I would be staying in cabin E in the Breede car, named for a South African river, which meant I would be on the Atlantic side of the hotel. The refurbished cars are positioned on actual tracks and are connected to each other, five on either side, with the platform in the middle having been transformed into a lounge area for guests to congregate.
Breede was the third car in the line of sleeping coaches. I grabbed the handrail and stepped up to board the train and then turned into the narrow corridor and made my way to my cabin. I opened the door to cabin E as far as it would go – until it hit the first set of bunk beds on the right. I didn’t walk into a sleeping compartment as much as I entered a sauna.
It was mid-day. The train cars remain idle on the tracks with no trees or covering to shade them. There they bake in the sun all day. The only window in the small cabin was covered with blue cloth patterned with colorful rondavals, the traditional round-shaped, thatch-roofed huts seen in rural South Africa. I pushed the curtains aside to discover that the original window had been replaced with a single pane of glass that looks out into a parking lot and doesn’t open. Having been warned that the heat in the cabins can be unbearable in the summer, I had, fortunately, brought an electric fan with me. I nearly hyperventilated, however, when I couldn’t find an outlet to plug it in. There, covered by a duvet (which seemed entirely unnecessary in the sweltering heat of the carriage) I discovered an outlet below the lower bunk bed, and right next to the pullout storage drawers. I quickly plugged the fan in and it began to circulate the stale, hot air.
I stood up and immediately hit my head on the wooden frame of the upper bunk on the right side of the room. I turned around, bent down to reach for my bag and hit my head on the top bunk on the other side of the compartment. I moved again to raise the fan from the floor to the lower bunk and thrice hit my head. My head was ricocheting off one bunk bed and then the next. I felt like Lucy Ricardo in an episode of “I Love Lucy.” It was comical, but it hurt. The two-and-a-half feet that separated the four bunks of the cabin, an upper and lower on either side, made it a challenge to move without hitting your head. And I was only one guest in a cabin designed for four people. If there had been three others in the compartment with me, I would have left the fan for them, gathered my things, got in my car and drove back to my apartment in the area of the city known as Sea Point.
It was obvious that the fan would just blow hot air around my room. The claustrophobic compartment would only become remotely habitable once the sun had gone down. I grabbed my daypack and went off in search of a bottle of water and to explore my surroundings.
The hospitable desk clerk had mistaken my interest in the Train Lodge for an interest in trains – specifically steam locomotives. When I reappeared in the lobby to inquire as to where I could get a cold drink, he had pulled a DVD on the history of steam trains in South Africa for me to watch, along with several brochures about steam engines. He also requested that I follow him to a door, which he unlocked, and then instructed me to walk the old platforms behind the lodge and look at some of the very locomotives – including the famous Red Devil – that were highlighted in the video and print brochures he had just handed me. The significance of the locomotives was lost on me, though I believed the clerk when he said that train buffs come from around the world to see them, and to ride the steam-powered train that still takes tourists from Cape Town, along the Atlantic Ocean, to the seaside towns of Kalk Bay and Simonstown.
I was more interested in watching the trains pull into Cape Town station and then depart again. There is the inexpensive Metroliner, the local train with nary a white face amongst the jam-packed carriages of commuters traveling to and from townships throughout the greater Cape Town area. And the Shosholoza Meyl that traverses the country offering three levels of service: sitter (or third class), tourist class and premiere class. The train deposits passengers at the same destinations, but the journey to those destinations is different as comfort improves and security increases with the more expensive fares. This is also the place where the luxury trains, the Blue Train and the Rovos Rail, begin and end their journeys, renowned for exceptional service at an extraordinary price. On these high-end lines, there is nary a black face amongst the passengers.
No matter if you pay 10 rand for a commute from Cape Town to the township of Khayelitsha, or 24,000 rand for the “royal” treatment on the Rovos Rail – and yes, these are actual prices – all passengers get the same views of Cape Town, one of the most stunningly beautiful cities in the world. Looking down from the platform next to the old steam engines I see row after of railway tracks and trash everywhere. But when I look up, past the platform and the train station and beyond the buildings of the city, there is majestic Table Mountain. Whether your head is sticking out from the window of an overcrowded Metroliner, or you are drinking champagne from the elegant viewing car of the Blue Train, you don’t need a ticket to appreciate the natural beauty of the southernmost city on the African continent.
I walk back into the African Train Lodge and thank the desk clerk for allowing me to see a view of the station, and the city, that I otherwise would have missed. Desirous of a break from the sun, I venture into the air-conditioned comfort of the hotel’s lounge where, unfortunately, I realize I cannot stay. Some of the Train Lodge employees have gathered around a flat screen TV with the volume turned up to its maximum. They are laughing hysterically at every sophomoric joke made in a “direct to DVD” movie that stars some vaguely familiar-looking American actors. (I’m being generous here in my use of the word “actor.”) The film is so bad and the volume so painfully loud, that I would rather seek air conditioning in the stench of the cigar bar than stay in the lounge.
I have the bar to myself but find little escape from the volume of the television. The coolness, however, wins out over the other areas of the Train Lodge where I could find quiet, but no air conditioning. I put earbuds in and pretend to listen to my iPod while working on my laptop. I order a large bottle of water along with a burger and chips (French fries to Americans) and begin to cool down for the first time since checking into the hotel.
By the time my lunch arrives my stomach is growling so I take a big bite of my hamburger as soon as it’s placed before me. There is something unusual about this burger. It’s stringy. I take a second bite and when I try to pull the burger from my mouth and set it down on the plate I realize that there is something – something stringy – that extends from my mouth to the piece of meat between the bun in my hands. I chew and pull and finally break through the stringiness and put the burger on my plate – not to be picked up again. I eat a few French fries while contemplating the possibility of ending up with food poisoning in the middle of the night with the nearest toilet being at the far end of the carriage I’m staying in. I pay my bill and return to cabin E of the Breede car thinking a mid-afternoon lie down on my bunk bed, no matter how hot it is, might do me good.
If anything, the temperature of my cabin had increased while I was exploring the Train Lodge. Still, I needed some quiet so I turned on the fan, stripped off my clothes, and lay lifeless on the bed. Not unbearable, I thought to myself, if I lay absolutely still and let the fan works its magic and dry the sweat from my body. Miraculously, despite the heat, I fell asleep – for a few brief minutes. When I woke up I was wet from sweat and needed air. Now. I pulled on my trunks, grabbed my towel (grateful I had shelled out the 50 rand for it) and made a beeline for the swimming pool.
There is, perhaps, no single item that consistently disappoints my travel imagination more than the condition of hotel swimming pools. The artist, David Hockney, has forever ruined my appreciation of swimming pools – especially at budget accommodations. In my mind, I envision a Hockney painting of a pool complete with shimmering blue water and delicate tile work adorning the perimeter of the pool. There are chaise lounges and pastel-colored umbrellas. I don’t know why, and I certainly can’t fault Hockney for this, but in my pool fantasy I imagine Sade’s CD, “Lover’s Rock,” playing quietly in the background through some well-hidden poolside speakers. Always, there is a young man with a swimmer’s body floating on an air mattress in the pool and since that is the reason why Hockney paints swimming pool scenes, I can blame him for that image being forever stuck in my brain.
What a surprise. It was not a David Hockney painting that I discovered at the pool at the African Train Lodge. I couldn’t tell if the water appeared green because of a combination of the color the pool was painted and the accumulation of silt at its bottom, or if the water actually was green. There was the thinnest layer of something indescribable – just like the stringy nature of my hamburger defied description – on the surface of the water. My best guess is that it was sunscreen lotion that had washed off of swimmers and that had then attracted all of the bugs that had drowned – their dead shells suspended in the water by its oily sheen. As hot as I was, I wasn’t yet enticed to get in the water. Call me persnickety, but I like my pool water clear, not opaque and preferably not the same color as my hunter green swim trunks.
Fine. I wouldn’t get in the pool; I would just lounge by the pool. But there were no chaise lounges, just a half a dozen bar stools. Yes, that’s right, bar stools poolside. Oh, and there was an immovable concrete table with long concrete benches on either side. That’s when I noticed the concrete Buddha placed near the deep end of the pool. Based on its potbelly, I would say the Buddha was facing the pool. I don’t know about its face, however, because the head of the Buddha was missing. I’m not too savvy when it comes to Buddhism, but somehow this didn’t seem like good pool karma – to have a headless Buddha watching over the water.
I was running out of refuge – both real and imaginary. The cigar room was full of stale smoke and memories of bad food. The lounge was home to exceptionally banal American films and too easily amused Train Lodge employees. My room was a sweatbox. And the swimming pool seemed to be in the early stages of some kind of science project that even the Buddha didn’t want to see. What’s a wanderer with a romantic notion of travel to do?
What the hell! I closed my eyes and stepped off the concrete deck and into the deep end of the cool green water of the pool. I surfaced and, treading water, opened my eyes. There before me, struggling for its life, was a little oil-covered beetle (well, not so little). Somehow, I didn’t think the headless Buddha would want me to just swim away from the drowning beetle, leaving just one more dead shell on the surface of the water. I pushed the beetle to the side of the pool where I scooped him up in my hand and tossed him towards the crossed feet of the Buddha. He landed on his hard-shelled back, rows of little legs trying to right his body. Oh, for Buddha’s sake! I pulled myself up the side of the pool, reached towards the Buddha, gently picked up the beetle and set him down on his countless feet. He was motionless and for a moment I thought dead, but then he seemed to shake the water from his back and scurry off to safer environs at the Train Lodge. I wished he could take me with him.
While imagination can disappoint, so too can situations change and what was once discomforting can quickly become special. Not finding the pool to be pleasant for swimming, I paddled over to the steps in the shallow end to just sit with my torso in the water. I found, however, that if I lay back, the top step would hold my head above water. The second step would support my back, allowing my legs to just float in front of me. I could look up at the cloudless sky, feel the warmth of the sun, but remain cool with all but my face covered with water. My body floating in the green goo of the swimming pool, I finally had found comfort from the heat of the day and the sounds and smells of the Train Lodge. Completely relaxed, I fell asleep in the pool, supported by concrete that was as comfortable as a pillow.
It was a perfect travel moment – impossible to capture in any fashion other than memory. It would be why, years in the future while having gin and tonics with fellow world travelers in a bar car on a train going to some long-planned destination, I would describe a magical, Zen-like experience at a swimming pool with a headless Buddha at the Train Lodge in Cape Town, South Africa as one of the best travel experiences of my life.
David Hockney could never have painted the scene. And I never could have imagined it.