Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Adventures in Apartment Hunting: Why I'm Now Determined to Stick Around Cape Town

I've spent much of the past three years flying by the seat of my pants (a figure of speech, by the way, that makes absolutely no sense to me), flying to new destinations days after booking my flights there, sometimes securing accommodation hours before the last minute and at least once (in Koh Samet, with disastrous results) after getting there.

When my friend Rob sent me an email months ago telling me that he and his boyfriend already had found a hotel in Camps Bay for their February trip to Cape Town, I looked at my computer screen like he was insane. Why the rush? What if something comes up between October and February? It's been so many years (seven) since a full-time job required me to get permission to travel and to plan vacations months in advance, and even longer since I've had to consider a significant other's holiday allowance, I've almost forgotten what it's like not to play it by ear (another peculiar phrase), planning practically everything as I go along.

I've had a few close calls, but thanks to agoda.com, booking.com, hotelclub.com, airbnb.com, vrbo.com, gumtree.com, Google's search engine and, occasionally, the well-connected friend (in Tel Aviv), I've yet to end up homeless, on the mean mean streets of any strange, foreign city, or worse, sleeping on someone's couch. I'm sorry, but no matter how many people talk it up, I will never see Couchsurfing as anything other than the accommodation version of sleeping around with anonymous strangers.

But now, I fear, my luck is in danger of running out, and the irony is that for once, I didn't wait until the last minute. Before my arrival in Cape Town, I decided to book my accommodation in Poyser Guest Suites in Tamboerskloof for one month only because A) I didn't want to be stuck longer than four weeks in an apartment I didn't love, and B) I didn't want to be stuck longer than four weeks in a city I didn't love. I'd been there done that in Berlin, and I had no interest in repeating that particular experience.

I ended up not only loving my Cape Town accommodation, which I found on the recommendation of my South African friend Adriaan (though I couldn't imagine spending more than a month climbing up and down the steep hill leading to and from it twice or thrice daily), but loving the city even more. I have my issues with Cape Town for sure: The racial politics are more complex and layered here than they are in the United States, and sometimes I want to just sweep the black/white/"coloured" thing under the rug and pretend it doesn't exist (which is such an American thing to do), but I think I could learn a lot from staying here and facing it.

Also, the exchange rate is incredibly advantageous (US$1 to 10.37 ZAR today), making Cape Town a far better bargain than pricey Tel Aviv and Melbourne, and it's a great base from which to explore the rest of the continent. These two qualities put it on par with Bangkok, a far less picturesque city at ground level, where I stayed much longer than I expected to (17 months in total) for pretty much the same reasons. So what if Cape Town lacks Bangkok's pulsating anything-goes nightlife? At my age, that's one of the least of my priorities, and Cape Town has got mountains and beaches, which Thailand has, too, but you have to travel further afield from Bangkok to get to them.

Unfortunately, though, finding an unrented furnished apartment in Cape Town in December and January is turning out to be even harder than getting a camel through the eye of a needle, or catching a wind chill in hot and humid Bangkok. (Rule No. 1: Beware of saviors in remote locations bearing apartments that seem too good -- and cheap -- to be true, and who require wire transfers and first look on moving day.) I have to be out of Poyser Guest Suites on December 15 (the last day they can accommodate me, which is four days beyond our initial agreement), and after a week and a half of searching, I have looming homelessness to show for it.

Yesterday, I came close to finding a one-bedroom flat in the Four Seasons building in the Gardens district. It would have been suitable lodging for the next month or so, until something more appropriately long-term presented itself. It was me vs. a young lady who came to see the apartment at the same time. A new arrival in Cape Town, she had just been forced to move out of her apartment by a shady landlord with no warning, and she had her belongings in a car downstairs ready to move in immediately.

Clearly she needed the place a lot more than I did, so I didn't play my I-can-pay-the-entire-one-month-rental-fee (10,500 ZAR)-on-the-spot-in-cash-while-she-can-pay-for-two-days (1,400 ZAR)-up-front trump card. Like me, she would have preferred to be in Sea Point, the residential beach district on the opposite side of Signal Hill, but she was willing to take what she could get right now, and she got the Four Seasons one-bedroom. So back to the pavement I went.

As it was explained to me last week by an agent who showed me another apartment in the Four Seasons building (which also would have been perfect for me had it not required me to commit to at least six months in an apartment without AC that gets an abundance of direct afternoon sunlight -- it was hot in therre!), tis the season for models from around the world to arrive in Cape Town for photo shoots. Hot fun, summer in the city, and beautiful views of Signal Hill, Lion's Head and Table Mountain! I can't think of a better backdrop for a gorgeous magazine spread.

My new friend Odidi, whom I met through Adriaan, spent all day yesterday assisting me on my search, working his contacts in "The Gay Mafia of Property." He calls Cape Town "the St. Tropez/Costa del Sol" of Africa. Everyone wants to be here for high season. But he promises I will find something. He will see to that. He made me want to stick around even more than I did when I woke up yesterday, even before he told me that Annie Lennox and Ruby Wax both live in Cape Town. Yes, the king of non-committal would actually consider signing a one-year lease, which is nine months longer than any real-estate agreement I've made since buying my apartment in Buenos Aires in 2005.

And like the beautiful lover who makes you want him more by acting as if he couldn't care less whether you stay or you go, Cape Town is reeling me in tighter with its seeming indifference to me. If I wasn't sure that I wanted to stick around before, I'm 100 percent certain now, if only to prove that I can do the near-impossible, which at this point, would give me a greater sense of accomplishment than jogging to the top of Lion's Head, which I'd gladly do, if it meant there'd be an apartment waiting for me at the end of the run/climb.

Throw in an Annie Lennox sighting, and I might never want to leave.
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