It's overcast here, which is a drag - there's so much sky in Cape Town, and by all accounts it's spectacular when it's sunny. But hopefully the sky will clear tomorrow, when we have some more tourist time.
(I just went to check the weather forecast online, having forgotten that I'd already logged off the Internet, since as noted before the cost is metered. I bought four hours worth and have already gone through an hour and a half. What I've come to realize is that it's not that I use that much Internet time -- I got through most of my email fairly quickly -- but that so much of what I do with my computer now presumes that I'm always online. I downloaded MarsEdit so I could compose blog posts about all this offline; so far so good.)
Presumption is also a good place to start thinking about the Interactions conference, and about this trip, since the former was so much about using and challenging them, and this trip just overturns them, or exists outside of them.
With Interactions and my trip to South Africa coming so close together, the two are bouncing around up against each other in my mind. Jared Spool spoke about how learned conventions can become intuitive interactions through use: Sigi Moeslinger from Antenna told us how the ATM interface she thought would be intuitive for the MTA MetroCard machines she designed turned out to be more of a stumbling block for users than she'd expected, because approximately half of the people riding the New York City subway don't have bank accounts. What are the assumptions that go into making something intuitive, and what layers of class, expectation, and history go into that?
Cape Town defeats a lot of my expectations -- not the least of which is that people will drive on the left. Since Cape Towners also drive like maniacs, I've felt my mortality acutely.
More seriously, Cape Town has all the trappings of a First World city - the highways, the industry, the skyscrapers full of businessmen -- but the Third World peeks through the cracks, in the signs advertising backup generators for the power supply problems, in the cell phone repair/reuse stores, in the amazing range of languages I can't even identify being spoken all around me.
The history of the place comes through in odd ways as well: my breakfast options were "English" (hot) and "Continental" (which turned out to be a fairly lavish cold breakfast spread). I went for English and faced what I think was actual scorn when I turned down tomato and sausages (really, other people's breakfast habits, being experienced first thing in the morning when my defenses are down, are the hardest thing to be culturally sensitive about). I keep getting tripped up in these little ways, and it's useful to be reminded that all of my assumptions about creature comforts (like the wireless access I don't have in my room)are embedded in specficity as well.
Possibly the most interesting and jarring place I've been so far is the Victoria & Albert Waterfront, which is still a working port even as it's become a major shopping district and tourist destination -- there's a warning/disclaimer as you enter. There are major label brand shops, including a Nike Experience, there's a beautiful 19th century clocktower that wouldn't look out of place in Boston which the harbormaster used to use to survey the port, and there's a ferry out to Robben Island, and an associated exhibit space that you can tour while waiting for the boat.
Robben Island is of course where the apartheid government sent its most dangerous prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned there for thirty years. I might have imagined, during the days of anti-apartheid marches and dancing to "Free Nelson Mandela" at high school dances that I might some day visit a post-apartheid South Africa, and see Robben Island turned into a monument to the human ability to rise above adversity. I don't think I could have imagined that you would get there by going through a shopping mall, or that I would have a surprisingly inexpensive fancy restaurant meal within sight of it. I certainly don't think I would have thought that the restaurant patrons would be mostly white, and the serving staff mostly black, still.