The real Cape Town is quite possibly too real for me. Don’t get me wrong, Cape Town was a dope destination and one of the most naturally beautiful places I’ve seen outside the Caribbean. I have never visited a city so divided between the have and have nots and the face of disparity showed itself in so many moments that if you’re like me you can’t help but say…damn!
The bus ride from the airport to the city center was my first introduction into Cape Town life. Along the route, just as we left the airport I could see the formal and informal townships. Later I learned the difference between them. Formal townships were created during the apartheid government. Formal townships were programs that forced many blacks to leave dwellings in the inner city and had them resettled on the outskirts of the city. But this was done haphazardly and left blacks with inadequate homes and in unsuitable living conditions.
Because of overcrowding in the formal townships, blacks created informal townships. They found a space to create a dwelling and squatted and many followed the same pattern and thus creating an informal township. This is your introduction to Cape Town, a view of the formal and informal townships and despite my time in Soweto I wasn’t ready to see such poverty from the onset of my journey with the beauty of Table Mountain in the background. It seemed too contradictory for me to see such immense beauty and poverty underneath it.
My first afternoon in Cape Town was spent at a café near St. Georges Mall called Café Paparazzi. It was close enough to the hotel Jérémie and I stayed at and after being lost for a while looking for the hotel, I just needed a place to grab a bite and a good drink. Paparazzi became my hang out spot and quick go to spot for wifi, a meal, and friendly conversation. That afternoon, John, an American friend who had been in Cape Town by himself met us and the three of us took Cape Town on as a trio. John had done a lot of touristy things in the week. John had been in Cape Town almost a whole week and we got the scoop on his experience, but I wanted another perspective, one not so touristy. That’s when I turned to the waiter, Alex, and asked him to show us Cape Town through his eyes for the day. Alex agreed to help. If your thinking that was unsafe, well I don’t live with those restrictions and I am always interested in the lives of people who have a different cultural perspective than mine and if all else I knew where Alex worked. Alex clocked off work and took us to a public square near the train depot in Cape Town. So many people were just hanging around, it was a weekend when we arrived and the streets were packed. We got a few drinks and Alex and his friend Thaou walked us to a safe spot to indulge in good drinks, good conversation, and good laughter. A police officer noticing us across the street came over, as he did so, Alex just said “its cool.” The cop wasn’t interested in arresting us, he was interested in making some cash and Thaou paid the bribe and we kept on drinking and laughing.
After indulging we said our goodbyes and the trio (Jérémie, John, and myself) said goodbye to Alex and Thaou. The walk back to the city center was a happy one of course…we laughed even more, stopped and took pictures, then laughed some more. We were on vacation and it felt like it, our minds were so far away from home and its worries. Suddenly, Jérémie, who was leading the pack jumped back and shrieked. I was scared, but couldn’t see what he saw. Not until I looked down and saw a man with a syringe and a rubber tube tied around his arm injecting what we assumed to be heroine into his arm. He looked dead in the face and his body was so thin and contorted that it seemed he barely was alive. Later someone would share these addicts are called skullies. A name for the image of a man I had seen and it fit strangely enough. We were warned that the skullies rob senselessly and to be careful.
In all my years of living in the Caribbean, America, and Europe, I had never seen anyone shoot anything up their arm with a needle. It brought me all the way down and instantly I became depressed thinking I came all the way to Africa to see this shit. We ended up walking to a square, the cobblestones and French architecture made me forget I was in Africa or Cape Town for that matter. We sat at the table at a quaint café and tried to put what we just saw behind us. We ordered food and more drinks and continued taking in more of Cape Town. This square became one of my favorite spots while in Cape Town and the market in the square is filled with great quality art, jewelry, clothing, and crafts for sale during the day. We left the café and partied the rest of the night on Long Street. This is the strip where all the bars and clubs are and is always heavily populated with tourist and locals partying. We were continually warned not to go walking alone at night and to stay on busy streets and to use taxis as much as possible. This came from the hotel staff at the St. George’s Hotel and the concerned locals we met along the way. They warned us of the colored population who were a large percentage of the homeless population and resorted to petty crime to survive. This was interesting to John for he had been labeled colored before we arrived and said he never knew he could be amongst a group of lighter skinned people seen as less than and thugs.
The next morning we decided to go sight seeing. John could only spend a few hours with us because he had a flight to catch that evening. Jérémie and I learnt that day that all we really needed to do was use the Hop on-Hop off bus ticket to get to see Cape Town at a cheap cost at that. This can be purchased through City Sight Seeing Cape Town and can be found in Johannesburg as well. The bus is a good idea and is very cost effective because many Capetonians use the bus to get around as well. We drove from the city center to the beach and had a moment of taking in the scene of the beautiful homes and landscapes. We could see Lion’s Head and Table Mountain and take in the million dollar homes that were built along the beach. We enjoyed the beach for a few hours, no swimming, just enjoying the moment and took pictures. John left for the airport and Jérémie and I continued exploring and headed to the waterfront where you can buy tours to see Cape Town by helicopter or by boat. There is also a great deal of shops and restaurants at the waterfront.
Jérémie and I left out early the next morning to go hiking. Table Mountain does not have to be hiked, and while some take the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway up to the summit…we were daring enough to hike starting from the Kristenbosch National Botanical Garden. The hike took almost four hours and was my longest hike to date. Along the way we stopped by a reservoir that had white sand around it.
The flora and fauna at this height was beyond amazing and I had never seen anything like it. The hike is not for the novice hiker and you should be an average to advanced hiker. You should pack water, snacks, and a sweatshirt as the temperature drops at the top drastically. We ended the hike with having lunch at the restaurant on Table Mountain and Jérémie opted to descend down the mountain, which was another two hours. I choose to ride the cable car down, four hours was more than enough for me. Everything isn’t for everybody. Lol. The hike exhausted us, but we managed to grab a bite that night back in the square that reminded us of a European Square.
The next day, I woke up to go on a township tour. Jérémie wasn’t fond of the idea and opted to go nature watching and take landscape photos. It’s always good to travel with a friend, but understanding that your interest doesn’t have to be the same to enjoy a trip helps tremendously. I paid for my township tour at the same office where we got the hop on hop off bus tickets and the tour consisted of a couple from Switzerland, a South African mother and her two children visiting from Port Elizabeth, and myself. The tour was lead by two tour guides Simba and David who lived in the township of Guguletu. The tour started in District Six, where we got a quick lesson on one of the first areas taken away from black South Africans under the Group Areas Act; land was declared white only and blacks were forcibly removed to other areas outside the city. The current SA government has since created the Commission of Restitution of Land Rights to give back land to those who were removed from District Six. Next, we stopped in the formal township of Langa and Guguletu and walked along the streets and bought goods form local vendors who rely on the tours to bring customers to their stalls.
Though uncomfortable with the nature of the tour and the voyeuristic approach I was taking I was glad to see everyday people. I became uneasy when the guide took us inside the home of a family. We were told to come in and to see the conditions as though we worked for FEMA and could give relief. There was a plate on the kitchen table for donations and the whole scene made me think about my first day in Cape Town when I had been at the beach taking in the beautiful homes and restaurants. I had experienced such a stark contrast just two days ago and now I was looking at a family trying to escape poverty by displaying it. We ended the tour by going to the famous local restaurant Mzoli’s and I had my pap again. The guides gave me their sign of approval because they saw me eating pap with my hands. There are so many things you can do to connect with someone from a different culture…not judging is the most important on my list.
For our last day in Cape Town we did a wine tour and got to see some of the vineyards credited for making the South African variety of red wine called pinotage. The hop-on hop-off bus takes you there as well, just keep in mind the times for the last bus back to the city center and pack a light sweater, as Cape Town weather is very skittish. One minute it’s hot and the next second its cold…the nights tend to be cooler because of the high mountains enclosing the land. The wealthy Dutch colonist who turned the land into vineyards by simply taking it away from its original inhabitants created the vineyards. Despite this fact, the whole thing is quite beautiful, and because I had spent yesterday visiting the townships, I couldn’t help but feel a little self-conscious of yet another stark contrast in scenery.
That night I met up with some locals on Long Street and they asked me if I preferred Cape Town or Johannesburg. Without blinking I said Joburg and I gave my reasons straight up…the disparity between the have and have-nots is too great here. I shared my complexity on Cape Town and while they admit the disparity was great, they also felt quite lucky to be amongst a class of people earning a great deal after going to school and leaving their family. Moreover, they just felt that all they could do was to be responsible for themselves and to make sure they climbed higher because the fall was too steep and there was no safety net waiting for them at the bottom.
Jérémie and I rested the next day, exhausted from all our wonderings, but met up that night and talked about all the things we enjoyed about Cape Town and decided we’d come back. We didn’t get to see Robben Island. The tickets were all sold out and they needed to be booked way in advance. We also wanted to come back and enjoy the beach more. Cape Town has a natural beauty that is beyond words and though there is a disparity, I would never let that diminish the sense of pride all Capetonians take in their surroundings.
We packed and got ready for an early flight after our last dinner in Cape Town. We were leaving South Africa for Zimbabwe and it was exciting and scary because everyone we spoke to along the way in Johannesburg and Cape Town asked why we were going to Zimbabwe — and to Bulawayo at that. They warned there’d be nothing to do there around this time and that most people were leaving Zim for the holidays.
I was going to spend Christmas with my good friend Brian and his family and that was enough reason for me. What I would experience in Zim would provide additional perspective to nuance my take on Cape Town and Johannesburg.
To Be Continued…Next stop Bulawayo, Zimbabwe!