Wednesday, November 13, 2013

My First Impressions of Cape Town


Cape Town, no doubt, has heard that before (along with the ooh's and the aah's). She's seen it, too, the same old expression (eyes bugging, jaws dropping to the ground) every time someone new lands in her ample bosom. Though she probably appreciates the appreciation, she doesn't need our awe. She knows how stunning she is.

But what are we supposed to do? Cape Town's mountainous cityscape made for perhaps my most visually arresting landing ever -- and I didn't even catch a glimpse of the water that surrounds her from my exit-row aisle seat in the descending aircraft. Surely she understands that when a city nestles herself in such a prime location between an ocean and mountains -- as Rio, which could pass for her sister, or at least a first cousin, has done -- her appearance won't elicit mere sighs of approval.

"When you grow up here, do you ever stop looking around and going "Wow," I asked Karen, the roommate of my friend Dolores who picked me up at Cape Town International Airport. The drive to my apartment in Tamboerskloof was so breathtaking -- the geological upswells (Table Mountain, unlike, say, the Sydney Opera House, looks even more spectacular in person, at close range), the edge of the deep blue sea (technically, the Atlantic Ocean) and beyond -- Cape Town quickly trumped Krabi in Southern Thailand as having the most stunning introductory scenery of any place I've ever landed in (despite the corrugated squalor of the township we passed en route to Tamboerskloof). How was Karen even managing to keep her eyes on the road?

"I'm from Zimbabwe," she replied. "But for my first 10 years here, that's exactly what I did. It's such drama."

She'd taken the word right out of my mind. The first thing that had popped into it after landing, when I once again had been able to form coherent thoughts was "What a drama queen!" Cape Town must revel in the over-the-top affection and attention showered on her by everyone who visits. If jaded world travelers approach her thinking they've seen it all before, what glee she must derive from proving them wrong.

My home for the next month is located in the mountains of Tamboerskloof, an area in Cape Town's so-called "City Bowl," an amphitheatre-shaped cluster of neighborhoods surrounding the northernmost part of Table Mountain. Poyser Guest Suites is at the top of a steep slope heading toward Signal Hill.

You know you've arrived when you see three donkeys milling around by the entrance gate. It feels like the middle of nowhere, yet it's only 200 meters or so from the bustle of Kloof Street and Buitengracht. Alas, you must descend a steep incline of 45 degrees to get to Tamboerskloof's city life. I was looking forward to the exercise, having to earn my trips to civilization and back home again, the challenging morning runs that lay before me.

While jogging, I'd just have to remember to keep my eyes focused ahead, which has turned out to be as great a running challenge as getting up and down that hill, with all of the incredible scenery vying for my attention. Cape Town, or at least my little part of it, is unlike anything I've seen before, yet it feels somewhat familiar. The area around Milner and Buitengracht and going down to Kloof, which runs parallel to Buitengracht, has a quaint, colonial, toy-story feel that reminds me of South Yarra, one of my three Melbourne stomping grounds. No one would ever confuse Melbourne for Cape Town, but it was also the last city to grab me so immediately.

The one city of which Cape Town doesn't remind me at all is Johannesburg. In some ways, the two don't even seem to belong to the same country. Johannesburg was such a rich, cultural experience (the Jerusalem of South Africa to Cape Town's Tel Aviv). My final night in town, when I walked into Sophiatown Bar Lounge, a restaurant on 7th Street in Melville that was hosting a live vocal-jazz band, I felt like I was entering a scene straight out of the Harlem Renaissance.

I'm still trying to process the differences between South Africa's two best-known and two largest cities, but I suspect that had I not spent time in Johannesburg first, South Africa wouldn't have inspired the same enlightenment and evolution within me. Two days in, Cape Town's appeal seems to be more visual than cultural. Aside from the Melbourne connection, I'm still having a difficult time pegging the city and the people in it. Thus far, nothing about it appears to be quintessentially African, though I'm certain that side will eventually reveal itself to me.

"Tamboerskloof is nice. Very white, but nice," someone -- an American expat who has been living in Cape Town for 10 years and who, of course, is white -- declared when I mentioned the part of the city in which I'm staying.

I'd noticed the same thing, but something about the context in which he said "very white," like it was such a negative thing, troubled me. Would I be missing out on blackness by staying here, despite the fact that I live with blackness 24/7, regardless of where I am? Or should I take my blackness elsewhere because fraternizing with white people, him included, was beneath me?

Ok, maybe I was overreacting. I knew what he was getting at, but if a black person in New York City for the first time was staying in Harlem, and he, or she, met a longtime Upper East Sider who said, "Harlem is nice, very black, but nice" (as if its niceness was in spite of its blackness), how would that go over? To me, it sounded like reverse racism, words one might hear from someone who was in recovery from white liberal guilt or from someone who would consider himself to be color blind, even if color was always the first thing he saw when he looked at anyone.

He also said that Johannesburg "is more of a proud African city than Cape Town is," which makes a lot of sense. But regardless of how I feel about the atrocities committed by white South Africans against black South Africans during Apartheid (and ongoing attempts since then to sweep that blight on South Africa's checkered past under the proverbial rug), both are legitimate parts of South Africa's history and the country's current cultural fabric, even if one doesn't necessarily reflect what it means to be "proudly African." I hope to experience more of that when I eventually make it to places like Rwanda and Mozambique, but it's not what I was expecting from Cape Town. That said, I don't believe I'm getting less of a proudly South African experience in Tamboerskloof or in Cape Town, just a different one.

Perhaps my new acquaintance simply prefers to be surrounded by black and "coloured" people, which would be fair enough. To each his own -- or the opposite of his own. (I'm still trying to decipher the meaning of "coloured" in the South African context. It's an official ethnic designation that has nothing to do with "colored" in the context of the United States from Reconstruction to the Civil Rights era, yet to me it seems as inclusive and vague, and therefore as meaningless, as "Asian.")

I was exhausted, and with all that I'd seen in the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg still fresh in my mind, I was particularly sensitive to racially charged comments, even ones that seemed to be made in favor of non-whites. But I didn't pursue a debate. His words, though, made me wonder about similar comments I'd heard from other people in the past, in places like Bangkok and New York City.

When does "white" become such an undesirable thing? Did it qualify as one here because we're in Africa? I don't want my experiences in this part of the world to be entirely political and/or colored by color. No, I probably won't be having any 1920s jazz flashbacks walking up and down (literally) the streets of Tamboerskloof, but then I don't have them walking through Melbourne, a lily-white (and increasingly Asian) city that's still my third-favorite in the world.

I've never had a problem with being surrounded by white people. It's only when they treat me like an exotic alien that I grow weary of them. But so far I've seen enough black people in Tamboerskloof and the areas around it (Bo-Kaap, De Waterkant and Gardens) -- indeed, the clientele at my new gym, Zone Fitness on Strand Street, is 98 percent black -- to keep me from feeling like the novelty, to not interrupt my ongoing personal South African evolution.

But we'll see how I see things a few days, weeks, or possibly months from now. I'm looking forward to discovering where South Africa takes me next. And I couldn't have asked for a more stunning backdrop.

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