Parallel worlds

One ocean, five time zones and 6873 kilometres apart, two writers sat at cafés on two different continents at exactly the same moment, and ordered a cup of coffee. They were almost at the same latitude: he in Buenos Aires (34° 35′ 54″ S) and she in Cape Town (35° 55′ 22″ S). At that moment and in both cities – 8.30am in Buenos Aires and 1.30pm in Cape Town, on 22 November 2011 – it was a sunny, tepid 20°C. As the writers sipped on their coffees (he a café con leche, she a latte), they took out their notebooks and recorded the world around them.

Cape Town

35° 55′ 22″ S 18° 25′ 12″ E

1.30pm (12.30pm GMT)

[words by Narina Exelby]

It’s strangely quiet here on this square. The café tables are half full with a mix of tourists and office workers, happy to be free of air conditioning for an hour. The locals lean forward in their chairs; they take off their jumpers or roll up their sleeves; business talk drones between the tables. The foreigners, all bare limbs and backpacks, stretch their legs, lizarding in the African sun.

I’m sitting outside Crave, one of the many cafés that surround Greenmarket Square, a cobbled national monument in the centre of Cape Town where, almost 180 years ago, the declaration freeing slaves was made. These days it’s a popular shopping spot for tourists.

Travelling students waft between the cafés and the market and – with no sense of commitment – browse the stalls. It’s colourful – bright paintings and fabrics and souvenirs from all over Africa have migrated down the continent and landed here, arranged on neat tables and hanging from the market structures.

Suddenly the students gather, five of them, just in front of me, and pose. Arms wrap around shoulders; fingers push back sunglasses. Someone snaps a photograph, they laugh and then scatter into the market.

The sweet aroma of a Thai green curry wanders past my table, which is near the corner of the square and almost underneath a white stinkwood. A very subtle breeze moves its leaves. There’s a bird calling – shrill – somewhere above me and I look up. The sun’s lighting the leaves from above, turning them a luminous green against the royal blue sky. It really is beautiful here.

In a moment – or perhaps it’s because I’m more aware of my surroundings – the square becomes a mess of noise – a trolley clanking across the cobbles; Eastern dance music ching-chinging from a café behind me; heels clacking up the sidewalk; a helicopter moving in to drown everything out. It circles over Parliament, just a few blocks from here, where people dressed in black have gathered to show their opposition to the Protection of Information Bill, which is being voted on right now. It’s a peaceful protest. I know this; I’ve just been there, adding my black-clothed body to the mass of protestors.

I’m envious of the tourists, most of them ambling two-by-two across the cobbles, unaware of what’s going on at Parliament and probably not noticing that so many people are dressed in black today. A few stop outside the various cafés, browse the menus, and move on. Two walk back; sit down. Pigeons tug at scattered crumbs of bread that have slipped between the cobbles. The office workers stand to leave. My coffee mug is empty; lunch hour is over.

Buenos Aires

34° 35’ 54” S / 58° 22’ 21” W

8.30am (12.30pm GMT)

[words by Mark Eveleigh]

A Bolivian shoeshine is laying his tools out on the corner of Calle San Martin. His location will hopefully bring him business from the steady stream of office workers, making their way uptown along Avenida Cordoba.

Not so long ago, smartly liveried doorman would have shared the shoeshine’s territory. Harrods closed in the Argentine crisis, however, and there is now just a faint tinge of peeling green-and-gold on the regal building across the road.

I turn the corner and step into the dusky interior of Café Orleans. I order a coffee and make for a seat in the corner. After the glare of the sunlight it is hard to see but I have the feeling that eyes are following me – echoing the professional optimism of the shoeshine.

Taking the first sip of my coffee I glance around. Apart from the waist-coated waiters I am the only male in the place. There are seven girls at seven separate tables – all apparently waiting for someone. Most are clearly South American but there are two tall blondes who could be Russian, or maybe Polish. Their tight jeans and low halter-neck tops are designed to be as obvious as business cards and they divide their working day between this café and the ‘love hotel’ (rooms for US$10 per hour) that now stands opposite what was Harrods’s rear entrance.

These girls are the day-shift counterparts of the nocturnal workforce I saw from the taxi last night on my way back to my lodgings. By night the shoeshine’s patch becomes the territory of transvestites. Some are deceptively attractive and are often betrayed only by the fact that they wear higher heels, shorter skirts, more makeup… and are less reticent about displaying the curves of their inflated orbs. Apparently it is an unwritten rule that only ‘real girls’ are allowed to sit inside the café. As I sit writing the café begins to get busier but each new arrival seems ostentatiously unaware of the other girls and they continue to occupy separate tables.

As I expected the girls seem to take me for a gormless gringo – childishly naïve, a complete virgin of the streets – and figure that I am unaware of the ways in which our ‘relationship’ could develop. Whenever I glance up from my notebook, however, there is the dark, sultry glance of a pair of almond-shaped Andean eyes to meet me. She probably figures that even this witless tourist won’t be able to misread the signs for long.

So I pay for my coffee and step back into the sunlight. Late office workers are still hurrying past and the endless stop-start waltz of traffic buzzes through the crossroads as I the corner turn back into San Martin.

The Bolivian shoeshine, at least, has scored this morning. A smartly suited businessman is propped in his high chair having a pair of tasseled moccasins buffed. I suddenly realize the logic of the Bolivian’s position: the businessman has an unobstructed view over the shoeshine’s bowed head into the café’s inner sanctum. The harem inside are positioned so that they are clearly visible from the shoeshine’s window-shopping vantage point.

Not everything is what it first seems in Buenos Aires.

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