Mike Hirschbach




Part One - January, 2004

Cape Town

Wednesday - I start each morning looking out of the large hotel room picture window at the expanse of Table Mountain, looming over Cape Town. It's an unavoidable presence, monumental and massive and utterly imposing. I tip my cup of coffee at it, and a billion years of granite pays no attention whatsoever.

We're making great strides in our work, and as a break and reward we take the afternoon off for a trip to Cape Point. Here, for the first time, I have the clear, unavoidable sense of being in a different country. On the drive there we stop at a beach abutting the highway, and see a spouting whale, fifty meters off shore. Baboons hurriedly cross the road just after we pass, a sight as commonplace here as cats are back home.

At the Cape of Good Hope a group of Japanese tourists is taking pictures of the baboons. One of them looks curiously at a photographer, then ambles closer. The tourist nervously backs off, and suddenly the baboon grabs his backpack with all the camera equipment inside, and races off for the nearby cliff. A small mob of tourists chases after the creature, and begins to climb after it. The baboon waits patiently until they've almost reached his perch, and then gracefully lopes to a slightly higher place. It's some time before a new strategy is developed. The baboon is tantalized back down with the lure of food, and a mutual exchange is made. It has the tension of spy exchange at a hostile border crossing, but both parties walk (or amble) away satisfied.

Walking on the beach I see ostriches pecking at the vegetation nearby. A strange sense of displacement; I've never been this close to them before without a fence between us. I'm told that nearby in these placid waters is the greatest concentration of Great White Sharks in the world, and any desire I have to swim in the inviting waters suddenly dissipates.

John and I drive to Brent and Laurence's, looking in vain along the coast for penguins. Penguins? Yes, there are penguins in South Africa, but none that we see on the beaches we pass. Supper is punctuated by very good wine and long discussions about circus and teaching. The school has changed over the years from its beginnings as a modest training facility. At some point in its development, the older students wanted to know what was next, how they could utilize their growing performance skills. This led by increments to their current performing and touring schedule, and impressive range of skills.

The South Africans say, "Cape Town is not South Africa." The trainers from other countries say, "South Africa is not Africa." They all want me to know that this is a very untypical experience of the continent. Indeed, I have to look carefully for the details that inform me that I'm in another country. Cape Town is very familiar and westernized, very like so many Canadian and American cities I've been to.

Thursday - Our luggage has finally arrived and been delivered to Zip Zap, but the Canadian wine that John brought for Brent (a serious wine aficionado) has vanished. The lock on my suitcase is broken, however nothing is missing. This isn't surprising; the things that are valuable to me would generally perplex and be ignored by thieves. What are they going to do with juggling clubs, with a diablo and devil sticks? Wine, on the other hand…

At lunch two of the students show us the very energetic and acrobatic new clown piece they're working on. It centers on a very clever use of a specially adapted picnic table, which allows them to slide along it, just missing each other with impressive precision and timing at seemingly perilous speeds.

In the evening I have dinner at the Mesopotamia restaurant. Ironically, it's here, surrounded by oriental rugs, patrons smoking hookahs, and mid-eastern cuisine, that I have, for the second time, the sensation of being in a different country and culture. I'm here with one of the Zip Zappers, and we're sitting on cushions at the low tables, when suddenly the music pumps up, and a veiled belly dancer enters, gyrating in a swirl of skirts. With her eyes and gestures she invites the patrons to join her. Never one to deny a new experience, I get up and dance with her, doing what I think is a passable imitation of her undulating motions to the amusement of the other patrons.

No penguins.

Friday: John leads a last-day-of-training ritual with a long circular rope. Together we lean back into it, each of us held up by a collective balancing act. Then, one by one, each person stands in the middle, while the other trainers in turn says one positive, expressive word about that person. It's moving to hear how others perceive our contribution to the intensive work, and know we've all taken steps into unknown territory together.

As a final gesture, we re-open the box that had been sealed on the first day, and encourage people to take out whatever they'd deposited on that first day. The trainers have a lot of fun as they pull out anxieties that have shrunk to miniscule size in the past five days, or are unable to locate their initial contribution at all.

Our weeks end celebration takes place at the magnificent Spier Vineyard. This is vineyard, restaurant and breathtaking experience. Face painters who put dotted markings on all the guests greet us, and then we enter the main dining hall. This is a huge open-air tent with an enormous buffet filled with the familiar, the unfamiliar, and the very unfamiliar (i.e. the sweet dessert known as "cooked sister"). We sit at long tables, and blankets draped over the back of each chair keep us warm in the cool night air. Musicians and accapella singers roam about the grounds; other diners are seated in the numerous tree houses reached by flights of stairs. Conversations spring up around the plentiful tended fires scattered throughout the grounds. Lights are festooned in branches, and couches are conveniently places outside among the paths inlaid with complex mosaics. We dance until the early hours, and leave too early.
In all this cornucopia of food, music, camaraderie, dancing and wine, there is a conspicuous absence of penguins.

Saturday - I'm at the local market first thing in the morning, even as the stalls are being set up. I barter for masks and tin animals cleverly constructed out of discarded pop cans, while John's on the hunt for fabric. Bartering is a slow process of casual conversation and feigned disinterest, of countering an artificially inflated price with a ludicrously low one, of tempering stubbornness with openness to a revised offer, of assessing each other's desires and bargaining skills.

In the afternoon we return to Zip Zap for a special presentation. First, Arnauld and one of the students, Neville, demonstrate a continuum of trampoline techniques for the audience of trainers, students and guests, going from the most basic moves to very advanced in a concise 15 minutes.
Then the students show us numbers they're rehearsing for a new performance. The opening begins with a collective dance number, a half circle of choreographed movement, which then freezes while individuals perform signature dance and acrobatic displays. The emphasis throughout is on group numbers, on a combination of dance and circus
Here is Tansy (all of 15 years old) on the unicycle, skipping rope while jumping up stairs, then riding down the stairs
as if they were merely a modest incline. Then comes a stable trapeze number with percussive music that lends itself to the quick staccato movements. Next is Charles, smoothly manipulating a flaming staff to South American pan-pipe music, then, a contortionist with the feral movements of a tiger. We can see that this is the kind of image and approach that could eventually inform and transform this number from a physically challenging act to one that would magnetize the audience.

t's fascinating to see these works in transition, somewhere between talented student work and polished, professional presentation. The show continues with four people passing fire-torches while balancing on the shoulders of four others. Also noteworthy is a very good 16 year old juggler who performs an impressive 7 balls, followed by 5 clubs.

In the afternoon David, our guide, John and I do some tourist things before we fly out. We take the revolving cable car to the top of Table Rock, with its magnificent view of Cape Town and the Atlantic. In Nova Scotia, I live on the other side of that ocean, and there's some heated discussion about whether Canadians swim in their Atlantic, or South Africans swim in ours, but in the interest of international relations, we decide to share it.

As we lunch, birds hop about, alert for the smallest crumb. A sign nearby states, "Do not feed the birds or dosse." Dosse? Is that a noun or a verb? Maybe I'm dosseing right now, and unknowingly contravening local law! Later, David points out several of them, weird little marmot-like creatures standing utterly still on nearby boulders.

We also briefly visit the Casino, but this is a place that could and does exist everywhere, and the glut of people is the last thing I need before the long flight back. On our way to the airport, we stop by a beach replete with wind surfers. Cool sand squelches through my toes and a postcard perfect sun sets behind a clouded Table Mountain. And there, finally, we see…penguins! They're at a great distance in the darkening ocean at twilight, mere specks on a remote rock, and it takes an act of the imagination and faith to believe they're not just part of the rock themselves, but I'm content to see them in any form on this last night in Cape Town

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