South Africa, Day 1: In Cape Town, thrills and thieves

Tourists take pictures of the city of Cape Town as seen from the top of Table Mountain at the arrival station of the Table Mountain cableway. Table Mountain cableway has been running for over 80 years and the cars feature a floor which can rotate while ascending to give passengers a 360-degree panoramic views.

CAPE TOWN, South Africa – It all started so promisingly. And then things went a little sideways.

Two days ago I arrived in South Africa feeling like I was leading a charmed existence. I'm here as part of a two-week Golfweek Raters tour of the country. Two weeks of golf, wine, safaris and sightseeing. As assignments go, they don't get any better than that.

And the trip, arranged by our friend Maura Nolan – who grew up just south of Cape Town and runs Safari Golf Tours – could not have started more smoothly. That 15-hour flight from New York to Johannesburg? No problem. (Thank you, Ambien.) After making the two-hour hop over to Cape Town and settling into my room at African Pride 15 on Orange -- an unwieldy name, but a very swank hotel -- I was anxious to explore the city. So I made the 25-minute walk down Long Street to the V&A Waterfront.

Sure, there were several panhandlers en route to the waterfront, starting with a middle-aged white guy who, I recall thinking with some irony, looked much like me. There but for the -- well, you know.

Anyway, I had anticipated the beggars. I had read up on the country before the trip and talked with friends who had made multiple visits. I've worked in New York and Washington. I grew up near Baltimore. I've traveled alone fairly extensively both to big, domestic and foreign cities and small, poor countries. I like to think I know how to handle myself. Shoot, if you can navigate the streets of San Francisco, where panhandling is practically a competitive sport, I always figured you'd be fine anywhere. I was, however, struck by the persistence of Cape Town's beggars, who, I soon found out, will follow their marks for several blocks in hopes of making a payday.

But regardless, I wasn't going to let that inconvenience spoil my first night in Cape Town.

On the waterfront, I walked into Den Anker, a Belgian-influenced restaurant, and grabbed a table by the window, looking across the Alfred Basin toward Table Mountain. As first impressions go, few cities can top that. I ordered springbok, medium-rare, and washed it down with Jordan Syrah from the Stellenbosch region.

This, I recall thinking to myself, probably isn't the day to ask the boss for a raise.

Around 7:30 p.m., I started walking back to the hotel. Again, the panhandlers -- starting with a young black woman. This tourist area probably is fertile territory for beggars.

The pleas seem oddly similar, as if they work from the same script. "Please, sir," they'll say, "I'm not asking for money." But, of course, they are. They speak softly, gently, politely -- apparently so their marks will feel guilty if they don't pay attention.

Walking up Long Street about three blocks from African Pride, I crossed paths with two young black kids -- one about 17, the other perhaps 13. They took a more aggressive approach, bracketing me and putting their hands on each shoulder and arm. They didn't push me, but rather just hung on my shoulders. My first thought was: This is a pickpocket team. But I figured I could handle it. They were so slight that I didn't feel physically threatened.

"Please, sir, please, sir, I'm not asking for money. . ."

I just wanted to get back to the hotel, pop two more Ambiens and get a good night's sleep.

When I reached the hotel -- yes, they persisted for the entire three blocks -- the older one helpfully said, "There's your hotel, sir."

In the lobby, I reached for my cell phone to check emails using the hotel's wireless connection. And then it hit me: Those kids had stolen my cell phone.

I had the usual response of a victim of a nonviolent crime: hot anger, frustration at having let down my guard. But what could I do? By morning my phone probably would be in Nigeria.

After settling back in my room, I had something of an epiphany: Screw it, I thought! I'm not going to let a couple of thieving little urchins ruin my South African adventure.

As if to reinforce that sentiment, I had a bit of karma when I logged on to ESPN.com the next morning. The first two stories I saw were gut-wrenching. Aroldis Chapman of the Cincinnati Reds had been hit in the face the previous night by a line drive. The other story concerned an Indiana University football player, Isaac Griffith, who had been taken out of a medically induced coma after a swimming accident.

I often cringe when I hear athletes talk about "putting things in perspective," but, well, those two stories did just that. Who am I to worry about a phone -- although it was a really nice phone?

I'm going to walk on Table Mountain and watch the sun set on the Western Cape. I'm going to eat crayfish pulled fresh from False Bay and chow down on springbok and ostrich and impala and all sorts of game that I had never even heard of before this trip. And I'm going to wash it all down with the finest Sauvignon Blancs and Syrahs this country has to offer. I'm going to play golf at Leopard Creek and The Links at Fancourt, and I'm going to stay in some of the finest hotels in the Southern Hemisphere. And I'm going to go on safaris and, with a little luck, I might even see Africa's big five: the elephant, black rhinoceros, cape buffalo, leopard and lion.

So take my phone, you little thieves, I can replace that. I'm not going to let you spoil my adventure.

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