Cape Town: the Good and the Bad. No Ugly.

Trip Start Sep 02, 2010
Trip End Jun 13, 2011

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Flag of South Africa  , Western Cape,
Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Cape Town, you are a charmer. We've looked at you from so many angles--from the air, from the sea, and from the top of Table Mountain--and you continue to show off your blue skies, your drastic cliffs, and your picturesque vineyards.

The first time I ever dreamed of visiting South Africa was when I was thirteen. Our neighbor and good friend Chantal was flying to SA for her job as a UN translator. She and other UN employees were helping to monitor the '94 elections, and I remember her telling us about the goodwill and the celebrations that Mandela's victory inspired in his people. This was also around the time when my parents played Paul Simon's Graceland every time we took a long family car ride. Rhett and I would jam in the backseat as we listened to Ladysmith Black Mombazo's harmonies. I wondered if I'd ever get to go to South Africa.

Fast-forward seventeen years, and here we are! As we flew into Cape Town, the wind rocked our plane back and forth, and we heard locals laughing about those "famous Cape winds," the same winds that put the Cape on the map so many years ago. If it weren't for the volatile winds and waters surrounding the Cape of Good Hope, this Town wouldn't be the place it is today. Shipwrecks, sailors seeking respite from stormy weather, and precious metals and minerals brought the Europeans to the Cape. They, in turn, brought many other things: most infamously, centuries of stormy racial tensions.

We came to South Africa to experience Cape Town's sights and culture but also to volunteer in a children's home. We'd spend five weeks working with the young children in this home (see my entry specifically about the lovely kids!), and in our time off, we'd explore the Cape.

There's not enough space here to describe Cape Town's breathtaking scenery. I'll just note that we loved exploring both the east and the west coasts, and I'll let the photos tell most of those stories. Check out the images from the Cape of Good Hope (we loved seeing those wild ostriches by the seaside!), from the famously gorgeous Chapman's Peak drive, and from the train as we rode along the False Bay coast. Other favorite photos are from our peaceful sunrise hike up to the top of Table Mountain, our wine-tasting in the Stellenbosch valley, and the serene Easter Sunday service in St. George's Cathedral (where Desmond Tutu presided). There's so much beauty here!

There's also such passion in people's stories. When we went to Robben Island and listened to our guides--former political prisoners--share their tales of being incarcerated alongside Mandela, we were completely taken by their histories. We could easily imagine Mandela sitting under the grapevine that he planted next to the cement wall. We could almost see him in his professorial role at the "University" of Robben Island, as it came to be called by its political prisoners, those who learned so much from each other about how to stay committed to their cause.

My favorite moments in Cape Town were when we'd stop and listen to the gorgeous music that's practically everywhere here: in the bars, out on the streets, through the church windows. The marimba bands and the a capella choirs were so energized and inspiring. Dan and I also loved taking the "crazy taxis," as people tend to call the minibus taxis that are ubiquitous in Cape Town. Some (usually fancy White people) warn tourists against taking them--and we never rode them after dark--but I think these folks were just uncomfortable with the prospect of being shoved into a hot van that blasted African music. The best part is that each taxi has a name, usually written in large pink cursive along the side. When your van, called something like "Obama-Mania" or "The Dream Weaver," rolls up, a man leans out the window and yells "Cape Tooooown!" while ushering you quickly inside. You dig around for your dirt-cheap fare and squish between two other people--or else mash your face up against the window. After getting sufficiently squished, you pass your fare up to the front. Watching the assembly line of fares move around the car--palm emptying change into another palm emptying change into another palm until the change reaches the front...and then passing your change backwards, in the same fashion--was heartening. In a country that has harbored years of distrusting segregation are these cramped taxis that practically pulsate with trust and indiscriminate fellowship.

On the other hand, Dan and I were both disappointed with the segregated spaces that we saw elsewhere in Cape Town--pretty much everywhere except within the minibus taxis. And I'm not only talking about the different residential neighborhoods, which were quite obviously racially segregated. I'm talking about public spaces. When we went to the famous Waterfront shopping mall, we saw only Whites. When we went into the central bus terminal, we saw only Blacks. When we went to some of the supermarkets, we saw only Coloureds. Even the neighborhood in which we lived with the other volunteers was supposed to be relatively "mixed," and yet you could pretty much figure out where everyone would be hanging out: the Whites in the restaurants, the Blacks in the park, the Coloureds in the small businesses. I was unhappily surprised. Hadn't we all heard about South Africa's exceptional progress in the past twenty years? Didn't we all champion its success in desegregating and "de-racializing" its populace? Perhaps I'm not in a position to critique, and certainly when I wasn't ever here to see what life was like during apartheid; maybe this IS significant progress for a relatively short period of twenty years. And after all, South Africans do face at least two daunting challenges: overcoming centuries of racist conditioning and building a middle class. Of course, the fact that race and class are wound up together compound the problems. So maybe I shouldn't be so surprised about the segregation and tensions that we experienced here. Still, I couldn't help but feel disappointed.

What we heard, too, was disheartening. Numerous people told us to be wary of this or that street and to stay away from this or that type of person. Crime is still a huge problem in South Africa, indirectly because of ever-present racial tensions but directly because of the astronomical rate of unemployment (hovering just above 25%, which mostly represents Black and Coloured people). So you can imagine our paranoia when Dan and I were left out on the street one night in one of those "bad neighborhoods" when our taxi ran out of gas. After the cab sputtered to a slow death, the driver left us there, with the key in his ignition and the windows rolled down, as he ran to the nearest gas station with a gallon jug in his hand. We were terrified. As we saw people slinking down the dark streets, we grabbed the key from the ignition, rolled up the windows, and hid our valuables under the seats. Fortunately, we were okay.  

But that wasn't the only scary moment. The night before we arrived in Cape Town, a man had jumped the wall surrounding our house (he managed to get over electric fence, too). Another man, the previous day, had gotten himself into the house by posing as our "gardener," so an unassuming volunteer let him in, and then the man stole several items. So our friends in the house (all other volunteers) were obviously a little creeped out. Though we weren't present for these trespasses--which, fortunately, didn't escalate to much more than instances of petty theft--we were present at another one. Several weeks later, when we were staying at the children's home in Khayelitsha, some guys jumped the wall (and the barbed wire) and broke into one of the buildings. We heard them jumping the wall, and thankfully, we saw the police car lights only about ten minutes later. Apparently, these guys had broken in two other times prior to this occasion: that's three times in one week. The guard at the children's home was unarmed, so he couldn't do much to protect himself against the trespassers and after only a brief questioning, he turned the other way and let them go on with their theft. (They crawled into one building through a roof and unscrewed the "security" bars of a different building.) The real kicker to us was not only that the guard had no gun or night-stick, but that he had no minutes on his cell he couldn't call the police. Seriously? The police only arrived because other volunteers called them. We may have had three locks between us and the trespassers (a padlocked gate, a sliding iron gate, and a dead-bolted door), but after this incident, we decided we wouldn't spend any more nights in Khayelitsha. Of course, this was already our fifth week and we were preparing to leave, anyway. But to some extent, the damage had already been done. We, too, had learned to be distrustful. Our main concern was no longer the segregated neighborhoods or the traces of racism that we sensed in this city. It was our safety, and if, in order to stay safe, we needed to suspect the worst in someone who "looks a certain way," well, that's what we did.

I suppose our experiences were unlike those of the average tourist. Most people don't stay overnight in the townships, and they take fancier taxis that don't run out of gas. They stay in hotels in fancy places that provide twenty-four-hour security. Most people probably visit Cape Town and leave mesmerized by all the sights that dazzled me, too. We all dance to the cheerful music and pay our respects at Robben Island when we talk to our passionate guides. And later we'll remember these beautiful experiences and people's compelling stories of their long walks to freedom. But I'll also remember that luxurious Constantia is only a short drive from down-and-out Khayelitsha. And it's hard to forget the miles of barbed wire and electrical fencing that encloses those Constantia houses--fencing that's probably miles longer than the space between those two neighborhoods.
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barb on

wonderful pictures! Your hike on Table Mountain was exquisite. Too bad your rib was hurting..... (:

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