BRICK HOUSE NEWSLETTER: World class penguins and a greeting from Wolf Santa
You wouldn’t think a colony of sweet little African penguins walking around on perhaps the nicest beach in Cape Town would need much selling, but the city’s extremely feisty tourism board appears to see matters differently, believing that visitors need to be aggressively sold on the experience. The Board’s spokespeople are always crossly explaining how enchanting the penguins are, going on TV and saying stuff like “their antics have delighted visitors to the Cape Peninsula for many years,” with their mouths in a thin, straight line, squinting in the harsh midday light from behind their small rectangular spectacles that are all greasy from sunscreen. “I mean … delightful.”
For years now, the Board has taken this mysteriously aggrieved and defensive tone when it comes to Cape Town’s many fine tourist attractions. I don’t know why they do this. Cape Town really does have a lot of stuff for tourists to feel pleased about, and there is no need for the Board to go around describing everything with an air of defiant challenge, as if daring someone to say otherwise. You’ll often see these guys being interviewed in the wind on some kind of hill overlooking the Franschoek Valley, frowning peevishly and saying “we have world class wine farms here in the Western Cape. World class varietals, world class facilities that are the equal to those in California…I mean world class.”
They’ll take this kind of tone even about Table Mountain, which as a spectacle does not require any kind of sales pitch at all. They’ll stand on the beaches in lace-up shoes and bootleg jeans, gesturing at the glittering ocean as they list stats about water quality in a put-upon voice. One gets the sense that the Western Cape Tourism Board is a stressful place to work, and this is perhaps most clear when it falls to a spokesperson to aggrievedly explain why tourists should go and see the penguin colony at Boulders Beach.
All this has had its effect over the years, and I am now at the point where I am suspicious of my own warm feelings towards the penguins at Boulders, vaguely anxious that I have been sold a lie. This is unfair to me and to the penguin colony, because they are delightful. Still, the well has been poisoned.
A while ago, I learned that a very very famous moral philosopher had specifically asked a friend of mine to take her to see the penguins. She was coming to Cape Town for a conference, and had apparently put in this request before she arrived, determined not to be cheated of the opportunity to see some small penguins moving up and down the beach in a way that makes you think they are on wheels. I was thrilled by this news at first, but the feeling was quickly replaced by worry that the very very famous moral philosopher would feel somehow let down by the experience, that she would end up concurring with the Tourism Board’s poorly concealed sentiments.
She loved the penguins, apparently, but finding this out did not really ease my concerns. Could this not have been one of those “exception that proves the rule” situations? I don’t want to give the impression that I spend my waking hours worrying what overseas visitors make of the penguins, but it is something I have thought about regularly in the past, and then last week, something happened to ensure that I will continue to do so well into the future, probably until I die.
I was doing an interview with this extremely nice French woman, and over the course of our conversation I learned that she had been taken to see the penguins while in Cape Town for a conference, and that she had hated them. She thought they were small and smelly and weird, and not at all what she had expected. They sucked so much, according to this very nice woman, that she didn’t even take a picture of them. I tried not to betray too much tension or anxiety in my voice as I asked her what her main problem was with them, and she looked at me as if I were insane.
“They’re not supposed to be there,” she said. “Not supposed to be where?” I asked. “In Africa,” she said. “The water is too warm for them there, and there is no ice, and that is why they are so small, so smelly, and the wrong colours.” It turned out that this woman believed that the colony of African penguins at Boulders Beach was in fact a colony of stunted, messed-up Emperor Penguins that had been brought over from Antarctica as part of some misguided zoological experiment, and that these once mighty birds were withering away on the beaches of the Cape Peninsula, becoming small and different instead of growing to their full man-size height on the Antarctic shoreline. I obviously didn’t have the heart to correct her, because this is an amazing thing to think, and I hope she rides out the rest of her days with this delusion fully intact.
The Western Cape Tourism Board’s defensiveness looks different to me, now. Who knows what kind of strange notions they have been required to disabuse tourists of over the course of their careers? Who knows how many obscure disappointments they have felt compelled to allay?
I am not sure what the point of this story is, other than that people are full of secrets and mysteries, and that if you ever find a reason to come to Cape Town one day, I hope that you will go to see the penguins and that you will then go on to email me about them, going into great detail as regards your impressions of their size, health, and general quality as an attraction.
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