Monday, July 13, 2009

Settling In

From first impressions, Cape Town is, similar to ex-colonial hubs like Dakar or large immigration centers like New York or LA, a city of almost schizophrenic contradictions and mixtures, a place where old and new coexist in often uneasy, but never uninteresting, ways. The statue of Cecil Rhodes in Company Gardens, with its disarmingly round face and uncomfortably Nazi heil-like one-armed salute lies a minute or two’s walk from the ex-Slave House Slave Museum, which is now hosting a retrospective on Steve Biko, thirty years after his murder, much how in Dakar the BoulĂ©vard Faidherbe ran into the Place de l’IndĂ©pendance. I hear English, Afrikaans, Xhosa, Portuguese, and a myriad of other languages that I cannot begin to identify, some of them all mixed together. Even the TV is multilingual, and South African soap operas sometimes require subtitles within conversations held mostly in English as characters switch back and forth. It reminds me of Spanglish or the mix of Wolof and French I heard all over Dakar, or even the strange vernaculars that expats living abroad pick up with each other—in Senegal, my American friends and I spoke a mixture of English, French, and Wolof. There are mosques and synagogues and churches, and I’m sure a host of religious centers and places of worship that I cannot identify. Even the weather is fickle, and a beautiful sunny morning with breathtaking views of Table Mountain becomes a freezing, windy afternoon rainstorm. The city of four seasons in one day. There is also the strange paradox of a city that loves to be outside but that does not walk on the city streets on weekends or once night falls. Security, in many ways, reigns supreme.

Cape Town sometimes feels upside down to me, though I think this is partly due to arriving in the middle of winter after coming from Californian summer, and from having to readjust to the cars driving on the wrong side (or other side or left side or right/correct side…whatever). It’s not easy to adjust to, and I have to constantly repeat in my head or out loud look right left right every time I near an intersection. There are familiar African and European elements, and some parts have a tinge of New Orleans and others of San Francisco or even Big Sur, and of course Cape Town is also something entirely new.

A part of the discomfort is the obvious segregation here, which falls, as is often the case, along economic and racial lines. This is largely in part due to the legacy of Apartheid, though I have seen disparities of this nature, though perhaps not of this extremity, in many places. The difference, as many will tell you, is that Cape Town does not really have a middle class per se. This is a town where you can see miles and miles of Informal Settlements (shantytowns, bidonvilles, squats, what-have-you) while driving from the airport into the city center, and then you can go test drive a Ferrari or buy ocean view real estate that starts in the low millions. It is very strange to look around a moderately or inexpensively priced restaurant and realize that almost everyone, except for the servers, is white in a predominately black nation.

I experienced this segregation in restaurants in Sierra Leone, but it was different: the “upper class” is mostly comprised of expatriates (and many Lebanese born in Sierra Leone, but that is a separate issue), not native-born black Sierra Leoneans. Most of the local people were in the same boat of dire circumstances and expats made enough money to frequent supermarkets and restaurants that mirrored (or attempted to mirror) establishments “back home.” I also saw this type of disparity in Dakar, but the elite was comprised of black Senegalese who had made their fortunes in one way or another. Tourists were easily recognizable and set apart, and expats seemed more low-key, as I remember at least. Cape Town’s disparity and segregation are unique, though with a subtlety that I find hard to articulate.

All the same, Cape Town is an amazing city. Beautiful views across the City Bowl, up to Devil’s Peak, Table Mountain, Lion’s Head, and Signal Hill, and down to the Waterfront and out to Robben Island. Lovely parks, many of which were once designated as vegetable gardens to restock Dutch East India Company ships traveling to and from Europe, leafy residential areas and old, distinguished buildings. A vast cornucopia of restaurants offering everything from boerwoers to sushi, fish and chips to curry, pad thai to pizza, and more big game meat than I can identify. I could, as a co-worker recently exclaimed, eat my way through Cape Town. There are also outdoor activities that range from tame to extreme: picnicking in one of the parks or botanical gardens, surfing and swimming down at the beach, hiking the mountains around the city either by sun or full moon, bungee jumping and rock climbing, or going cage diving to observe Great Whites.

I am just under two weeks in now, and everything is exciting and new and fascinating, even the more difficult bits. It’s cold and rainy today, perfect for a glass of old brown sherry and stew, I am told, but a big deterrent in terms of getting out and exploring. Everyone seems to be hibernating in preparation for the return of the sun, so that they can get back outside. These rainy days are not all that different from those in Southern California, in fact, until the wind whips around the City Bowl and blows back your hood, tearing the scarf from around your neck, and scurrying you inside for things that I have not yet been around long enough to try or to understand: the glass of sherry and bellyful of stew, the multilingual soapies on TV, the elusive but omnipresent shared experience of the Rainbow Nation.

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