July 25, 2011

I worked at Buck's Rock from 2003 through 2010, and in those eight years I was fortunate to meet fantastic people all over the planet. I know one person in Johannesburg, one in Stellenbosch, two in Durban, and two in Cape Town, which makes travel to South Africa easy and fun. Also, my amazing four-year college roommate is just moving to Cape Town from Botswana, and so now seemed like the perfect time to visit. 

We are staying for three days in Cape Town with Stephen. I last saw Stephen in the summer of 2006, but he did not hesitate to extend unparalleled hospitality when I told him I was headed to his city. Not only did he welcome us into his home, he also served as our tour guide today, showing us Cape Town from a local's point of view. Fantastic.

We started the day with a walk through Stephen's neighborhood, Vredhoek, which is nestled into the base of Table Mountain and overlooks the white city and sparkling ocean. The houses are all white stucco, and the streets are steep and narrow, reminding me of San Francisco (or, as Josh observed, Los Angeles 65 years ago).

My default mental image of Africa is one of flat, dusty, and brown veld, criss-crossed with shallow waterways and abundant with life I usually only see in zoos. While Johannesburg and its surrounds come closer to this image, the south and southeast parts of South Africa took me completely by surprise. Green, rugged, rocky terrain, blue sky and glittering water, dramatic cliffs tumbling hundreds of feet into the Atlantic and Indian Oceans... At times it looks like New Zealand, at times like the Southwest of the US, at times like the Rockies, at times like Central America, at times like Norway. Josh and I keep having to remind one another that we're in Africa, verdant and mountainous Africa. Add a whole bunch of European architecture to the mix, and it gets really confusing...

After a yummy "health breakfast" of Muesli, yogurt, fruit, and honey, we hopped into the car, Stephen at the wheel, for a trip round the cape. We stopped at several tiny beach towns on the eastern side, replete with cafes and brightly colored boats in the harbor. An old train runs down along the coast, right on the water, and it reminded me so much of Spirited Away. In fact, the whole city has a feel of old-world magical realism to it, as if a dirigible might rise up from the waterfront, as if dinosaurs roamed the top of Table Mountain, as if Lion's Head peak might shift in its sleep. This is a gem of a city, made even more fantastical by the fact that I didn't even really know it existed. 

At Boulder's Beach, we took a walk to see the penguins. (Did you know that only a couple of the many species of penguins live in cold weather? How did the Antarctic penguin become the default penguin?) The African penguins were totally silly, strutting around the beachfront, awkwardly climbing large rocks, sleeping with half-lidded eyes. I talked to them a lot, but they were not interested in conversation. 

Back in the car, we began climbing in altitude amidst the fynbos, low bush vegetation native to South Africa. Vast plains of fynbos led to sudden drop-offs, a horizon of little spiky plants. Large rocky hills, a narrow road, clouds rolling in, distant rain. We parked about a half-mile away from the Cape of Good Hope and climbed the steep incline up to the lighthouse, just as a faded but full rainbow arced out over the intersection of the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans. We stood by the lighthouse for a long time, buffeted by the wind, completely awed by the view. To the south, two oceans colliding for as far as the eye could see. "There's Antarctica!" Josh said, pointing. "Somewhere that way!" And to the north, the Cape Peninsula, rising majestically between the waters, rugged and green and brown, the sun beaming through the ocean mist.

Come afternoon, we were speeding up the west coast of the peninsula, the road clinging perilously to the sides of cliffs. At one viewpoint, we got out of the car to stretch our legs. And, just as I was reading the sign that said "Danger! Extreme gusts of wind and unstable rock," I saw Stephen duck under the fence and start clambering down the cliff face. "Follow me," he said calmly. Stephen, a local Capetownian boy and someone who long ago earned my trust, was leading and there was nothing for me to do but take a deep breath and follow. 

Twenty feet down from the railing, we ducked into a small cave in the cliff face, the stone brown and glowing in the sun, cool and grey in the shadows. In front of us (and under us) was ocean ocean ocean and cliff rocky cliff. So green and so blue and so intensely beautiful. The color palette here constantly surprises me. 

On the way back to town, we drove past Cape Flats, Cape Town's largest township. During Apartheid, all black people were denied entrance to the Western Cape Province (and were forcibly moved if they happened to, oh, live here), so Cape Town's racial majority is the "coloureds," which is South Africa's catch-all term for anyone not white and not black. Under Apartheid, coloureds existed in a limbo, mostly oppressed by the regime, but with some extra privileges denied to the blacks. If you were coloured, you could actually apply to be white if your skin was light enough. Unbelievable.

Cape Town today is about 50% coloured, 25% black, and 25% white. This surprised me, as the city had felt so white to me. And, by and large, the city is pretty white, as many of the blacks and coloureds live in Cape Flats, a township plagued by poverty and crime. 

We drove past Cape Flats, full of tenement buildings and rusty shacks, and into a wealthy neighborhood of white stucco vacation homes overlooking the water. There is an endless supply of cognitive dissonance here... 

Driving around the northern coast, we came back into Cape Town from the back of Table Mountain, the "tablecloth" of white clouds resting right on top. Dinnertime found us at the Bombay Bicycle Club, an amazing little restaurant, fabric on the ceilings, red and pink lights, odd antiques lining the walls and every available surface. We met up with Jade, another wonderful Buck's Rocker, and Jade's friend Ernie, who works for the police station as a drugs and arms officer. Dinner was wonderful - good friends, delicious food, lots of wine. We told Buck's Rock stories to Ernie and Josh, talked about the thriving Cape Town film industry, chatted about Ernie's work, and had an entertaining conversation about Great White Sharks. 

I couldn't understand Ernie very well, as he was quiet and English was his second language (Afrikaans being the first language for many South African coloureds), but I very much wanted to hear his story, particularly what it was like to grow up in Cape Flats. I'll ask Jade more about it tomorrow. 

Back at Stephen's, we crashed, sleepy and full of thought. More Cape Town tomorrow.