Saturday, September 29, 2012

Bunny Chow?

On the eve of the first day of my vacation, I learned that my holiday break had been extended nearly 2 weeks, so on a whim I booked a flight to Cape Town using airline miles, found an extremely cheap hotel in an amazing central location, and began planning a fourth leg to my trip.  My sister-in-laws headed home after our gorilla trekking adventure in Uganda, and I headed almost due South to a place I had always dreamed of visiting - Cape Town. 
As my driver navigated the route from the airport into the city-center where my hotel was located, the city unfolded in front of me and reminded me a bit of San Francisco.  The hills weren’t nearly as steep and the spaces weren’t nearly as crowded, but it gave off the same initial impression.  Prior to arriving, I had planned a rough outline of sights I wanted to see and activities I wanted to do for each of my 10 days in Cape Town.  I had arrived and yet another adventure had begun!
One thing that caught me a bit off-guard was how cold it was in Cape Town.  I knew that winter was coming to a close in the Southern Hemisphere, but I have been spoiled in Rwanda where our low “winter” temperature each night hovers around 62F.  I layered myself up like I was going to play in the snow with at least 4 layers each day before heading out to explore.  Side note: I don’t even want to think about what it will be like arriving back in the States in the beginning of winter! 
I have heard many things about Cape Town, but knew very little prior to researching it and planning my days.  Like most cities around the world, there is a lot to see and do, and over the course of 10 days, I nearly saw and did it all.  I won’t bore you with too many details, but instead I will highlight my favorite pieces and note some interesting observations that I made.

Cape Point
  • Point of Good Hope and Cape Point – Located roughly 50km South of Cape Town is the Cape of Good Hope.  There is a false impression that this piece of land is the most southern tip of Africa because it was once believed to be the dividing point between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.  Although the Cape of Good Hope is not the most southern tip of the continent, it marks the point where ships begin to travel more eastward than southward when at sea.  Located about 2.3km East and a little North of the Cape of Good Hope lies the peninsula of Cape Point.  There is a major peak that dominates the skyline locally but there is also a smaller peak about 100m further south.  Atop each of the peaks stand lighthouses.  The higher, old lighthouse was replaced by the newer, lower lighthouse for two reasons - the old lighthouse could be seen 'too early' by ships rounding the point towards the east, causing them to approach too closely, and more importantly foggy conditions often persist at the higher level, making the older lighthouse invisible to shipping, and thus ineffective.

  • Greenmarket Square – Just a block and a half from my hotel was one of the city’s oldest open-air markets, set on a cobbled square.  Individual vendors, numbering near 100 in total sell clothing, jewelry, local art and every imaginable nick-knack from nearly every country in Africa.  A wonderful and  somewhat chaotic, frantic buzz filled the air each and every day.  Each seller was seemingly offering every touristy-looking person a “very special price.” I loved the energy of the place and often found myself walking through the stalls on many afternoons, not looking for anything in particular, but just enjoying the sights and sounds. 
a view inside the busy Biscuit Mill Saturday market
  • Old Biscuit Mill Market – There is a market every Saturday at this converted Biscuit Mill, which now houses unique artisan stores and restaurants.  On Saturdays, tents are erected to expand the space offered by a limited permanent structure and local food craftsmen set up stands along the walls and down a central aisle to serve the local clientele.  There is communal seating via picnic tables down the center and on bales of hay and benches surrounding squares of artificial grass.  The selection of food was immense and varied – Taiwanese, French, Italian, Mediterranean, cheese, dried meat, crepes, pizza, bagels with lox, pastas, spreads and pesto, smoothies, coffee, chocolates, ice cream... – I must have circled the market four or five times before deciding on what I would eat.  There were also fresh fruits, veggies, and flowers for sale, in addition to an area that housed a “trunk sale” of sorts with clothing, leather goods, and shoes. 
    heading up Table Mountain
  • Table Mountain – It seems that no matter where you are in Cape Town, you can always see the magnificent Table Mountain.  I spent a morning on the Mountain and was “lucky” enough to have chosen a day when there was what is locally referred to as a “table cloth” over the top of the mountain.  It was encased in a thick cloud covering that was so dense that I could not see more than 6 feet in front of me when I arrived at the summit!  After getting over my feeling of claustrophobia, I began to embrace the cloud cover and found the setting to be both serene and a bit enchanting.  I was lucky enough to be the only person interested in a guided tour, so I got a personal tour of the top of the mountain with an eccentric, somewhat creepy, yet highly informative guide.  I couldn’t help but think about my brother as the guide made one geologic reference after another and came across to me as a geologist want-to-be.  I
    above the clouds on Table Mountain
    spent two hours on the guided tour, covering a few kilometers of trail.  Over time, the table cloth cloud covering changed shape and density.  There were moments when it seemed as if I was floating above the clouds, existing in a dreamlike and fantastic world, but then within minutes I was snapped back into reality as the weather changed at the drop of a hat and in one instant it was blazingly hot with the sun beating down, and in the next instant, a blustery wind blew through and I was wishing I had a parka.  It was phenomenal and bizarre. 
    a view from atop Table Mountain after the table cloth cleared
  • Township – I had the opportunity to tour a local township called Imizamo Yethu, located in the greater Hout Bay Valley area. The 18-hectare settlement houses approximately 34,000 people with little or no infrastructure for sustainable living. The settlement has dismal water facilities with no indoor plumbing or sewage system and very few communal toilets, each shared by 5-10 households of 4-8 people.  There is a local river that runs through the settlement and reportedly has the highest level of e-coli bacteria that has ever been recorded in South Africa.  To me the living conditions were abominable, yet the residents came across as being resilient and cheery.  I spent about 90 minutes in the Township and couldn’t help but think about the kids in my Village in Rwanda who come from similar settings.  It seemed however (and I was later told that my thoughts were correct) that the most underprivileged and poverty-stricken people in Rwanda are better off than the poor people in South Africa.  The township embodied a level of poverty that was beyond belief. 
  • Botanical Gardens – Flower gardens have always made me feel relaxed and comfortable.  Although the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens were not in full-bloom because of the time of year, the grounds were still captivating.  Did you know that there is a Bird of Paradise flower that was created to honor former President Nelson Mandela?  
  • Winery – Similarly to Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope, you cannot visit South Africa and NOT go to a winery.  If I were to sum up my visit to Groot Constantia winery in one word, I would choose: lovely.  The restaurant was pleasant, the grounds were open for visitors to walk around at their leisure, and the cellar tour and wine tasting was delectable! I tasted a Sauvignon Blanc, a Blanc de Noir, a Shiraz, the Gouvernerurs Reserve, and a Cape Ruby (Port).  Which was my favorite?  All of them. 
  • Eastern Food Bazaar – Located 20 steps away from my hotel was the Eastern Food Bazaar, a food court-like establishment with 10 eateries over 80 menu items from which to choose.  It was a gem of a find!  The best part, aside from the scrumptious food was the fact that I never paid more than USD$5 for a complete meal (drink and gelato included!)  My favorites: Falafel and the local “street food” known as bunny chow which is a hollowed-out ½ loaf of bread, filled with a curry dish.  WOW!  My mouth is watering just writing about it :)
Having traveled quite extensively, I have found that my favorite and the most welcoming people reside in Scotland.  I have found the most spirited, cultural people in Tanzania, and I found South Africans to be some of my least favorite people I have crossed paths with during my travels.  It is just a personal point of view and I learned long ago that I do not have to like everyone and I do not have to try to win over the favor of everyone in a quest to have them like me.  People are who they are, and I found South Africans in Cape Town and the surrounding area to have a bit of an air about them as they often present themselves as elitist, superior to anyone and everyone.  Through many conversations I uncovered that they really don’t like anyone and seem to have an opinion on and criticism for every person from every place.  It was interesting in a sociological sort of way.  I especially found it interesting to see Cape Town-ians’ reactions when I told them that I was living in Rwanda.  Although just a few countries removed, everyone’s reaction made it seem as if Rwanda was an entire world away, filled with danger, risk, and untamed, uncultivated people.  They seemed somewhat perplexed and horrified as to why I had CHOSEN to live in Rwanda instead of say, staying within the boarders of “safe” America (although they had plenty of criticism about America too!).  I could have just let their comments be, as I have learned the value of biting my tongue since beginning this African journey, however I have also come to embrace Rwanda as my home and after the first few pitiless comments, I took it upon myself to inform and educate them about the Rwanda of today.  I did not lecture them or force my opinions on them, but rather update them on the vast developments that have happened in-country and the makeup of the population.   After some carefully selected commentary about Rwanda I slid in an extra statement of comparison.  I’ll just say that I did not win too many fans over when I told them outright that I feel safer at any hour of the day or night in Rwanda than I do in the middle of the day in Cape Town.  It was the truth, and if there is one thing I pride myself on, it is being brutally honest when I am trying to make a point.  Point made. 
The other surprise that Cape Town thrust upon me was the racially divided neighborhoods that are still very much a reality more than two decades after apartheid ended.  It is a piece of Cape Town that most tourists do not see, and most likely it is a part that they do not want to see.  I had the privilege of touring a “black” neighborhood (see township section above) that was just across the street from a much nicer “white” neighborhood and just down the block from the “colored” neighborhood that was not as pleasant as the white one, but a vast improvement over the black settlement.  The “color” classifications still exist and the differences between the communities are striking and somewhat horrifying in an appalling way.  At one point I just stood in the middle of the black neighborhood, staring at the communal 1-stall toilet as a troop of white girls belonging to the local equestrian club rode by on their horses.  I struggled trying to figure out how this separation and segregation was still in existence in a newly industrialized country in the year 2012.  I was dumbfounded and dismayed.

Was Cape Town everything I had hoped it would be?  That’s hard to say because I live in a seemingly perpetual state of not having expectations, so it is difficult to judge how something measures up against that which I don’t formulate.  It was spectacular in so many ways, and really educational and eye-opening.  I feel as though I see the world through a new set of eyes since living in Rwanda, and having this new perspective gives me the opportunity to open myself up to a new way of thinking, questioning, and evaluating that which I see and experience.  It was a great trip!

A few other favorite photos from South Africa:
inside The Great Synagogue
some of the colorful houses in Bo-Kaap
Hout Bay Harbor
a view from Chapmans Peak Drive

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