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Gorgeous Cape Town's Skyline

Gorgeous Cape Town’s Skyline

I visited Cape Town in the December of 2001 with Semester at Sea.  It had made quite the impression on me then and I had counted it in the top three cities in the world, for me.  I was so looking forward to returning and doing the activities that I hadn’t had the time to on my visit fourteen years prior!

Entering the city on our rented bus, I was sorry to hear Pete (who’d come instead of Tabby because she can’t get a SA visa with a Kenyan passport) tell us to be really careful in Cape Town because it’s the most dangerous place the tour goes.  I was looking forward to walking around by myself, but I realized that I was still going to have to be cautious, especially in the evening, and take cabs/carry little etc.

On arrival at our hostel, The Ashanti Gardens, I was very happy to see beautiful Table Mountain right from the deck.  The air was cool and a welcome 15 degrees celcius.  That evening I enjoyed the best meal of the trip so far when I ordered “The Game Platter” which consisted of Ostrich, Springbok, Gemsbok, and Wilderbeest Ribs.  Damn.  So good.

Bench outside city magistrates court

Bench outside city magistrates court

On my first day in the big city – I ventured downtown to take the Free Walking Tour – these guides rely entirely on tips, so the quality of tour usually is reflected.  I wasn’t disappointed – it was a great introduction to the main commercial/political city centre; we even had the opportunity to observe a protest march passing right by the main town hall where Nelson Mandela made his first speech after being released from prison.

On a more sombre note, we visited the main city courtroom where people had to go during the Apartheid regime to get classified into a “race category”, of which there were five to start, eventually the government deciding on eleven categories, which, hysterically, included “honorary white” – to enable Japanese or Chinese dignataries/athletes/journalists etc. to be allowed to visit South Africa and be afforded the same privileges of movement as white people.  People would first have to pass what they called the “Pencil Test”.  If a pencil fell out of their hair, they were classified as white.  If it stayed, then they had to proceed to the court hearing to be classified.

Square with the slaves' memorial

Square with the slaves’ memorial

Our guide told us a few horror stories of families being physically separated after individuals who were related to one another were deemed to belong to different races because of having perhaps lighter or darker skin.  Couples, siblings, even parents and children could be separated and forced to live in different sections of the city.

Of the categories that were created, a few have survived and are used in everyday speech – White, Black, Colored, and Asian.  The use of the word “colored” has been the most interesting to me as it refers to people of mixed race, and has made me realize how strange it is that back home, we refer to those of mixed race, such as President Obama, as black.  Slightly black = black in the States.  This has been fascinating to ask locals about and I will dedicate an entire post to my thoughts on this topic later on.

V & A Waterfront

V & A Waterfront

Our guide also showed us where the slaves that were brought to the Cape were housed upon first arrival.  The Dutch settled the cape in the 1800’s but had to bring in slaves because they needed a workforce to build the city, and they were also in need of women to help populate the area.  Every Saturday, female slaves – from Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Malaysia (to name a few countries) would be rounded up outside in the square for the men to take pleasure with.  He said that it is estimated, now, that every “white” South African can actually attribute at least 8% of their DNA to this initial slave gene pool.

Which means, if correct, that the very men who wrote Apartheid into the constitution, were part black themselves.  An idea, which meets with tremendous resistance among some nationals here (as attested to my bringing it up in some conversations over the last few weeks, as a data gathering experiment).

In the park, we were shown a fully albino squirrel and were told that he’d been nicknamed “Apartheid Squirrel” and has his very own twitter feed… Funny.



Later that evening I met up with my friend Martin Slabber.  Martin and I were on a tour together in Chile back in 2008 and it was delightful to catch up.  He and his wife and his new baby Max picked me up in their car (well, the baby had little to do with it) and drove me to their home in beautiful Hout Bay where they live.  It’s about a half hour drive from Cape Town and it has quite a stunning beach setting with dramatic hills that rise up out of the ocean in jagged spectacle.  We picked up pizza take out and shared life’s stories over a lovely bottle of red wine.

It was so good to spend an evening in a person’s home after so long on the road.  Thank you Martin!

My visit with "Ice Bru" and Bob Vela!!

My visit with “Ice Bru” and Bob Vela!!

I hadn’t gone to Robben Island back in 2001, and nowadays, the visit to the infamous prison is one of the top visitor attractions, and most tours sell out days in advance.  I got my ticket online and visited one afternoon.  Though the boat service/tour was poorly organized, I was really glad that I went to experience the place for myself.  I really got a sense of what it must have been like for prisoners like Mandela, to be taunted daily with such a beautiful view of Cape Town’s Table Mountain, always out of reach.  We visited the rock quarry where prisoners were made to perform hard labor, often which was pointless and therefore soul-destroying, such as moving large rocks from one area to another, only to be forced to move them back the next day.

On Robben Island, the quarry where prisoners' worked

On Robben Island, the quarry where prisoners’ worked

The most disturbing thing I learned at the prison is best summarized by the attached photo.  During apartheid, a person’s skin color could literally determine where they were “allowed” to live, whether they could move freely in a city, and whether they had to carry a pass, or face being beaten or thrown in jail.  Here on Robben Island, it was taken a step further and the food that the prisoners were fed was different for coloreds vs. Blacks (that they deprecatingly referred to as Bantu) Of course, at Robben Island, there was no meal plan for whites because a white prisoner would never be sent there.

Menu at the prison for different races

Menu at the prison for different races

My final day in Cape Town, I got to do something I’d been waiting 14 years to do.  Great White Shark cage diving.  I was supposed to go back in 2001 but the trip got canceled due to bad weather.  While the activity is somewhat controversial, our company did a decent job of sharing their efforts in Shark conservation and explaining that they don’t feed the animals, they only attract them to the vessel and use the opportunity to study their behavior at the same time.

Mandela's cell

Mandela’s cell

Unfortunately, as excited as I was, not even the seasickness medication I took ahead of time was adequate in preparing me for the rolling waves that we had to sit through for over three hours on the open water.  Spotting the first shark was thrilling, and I made my best efforts to try and capture the moments on my camera, but after 15 minutes or so I began to feel queasy.

Me trying to keep food down in the shark cage

Me trying to keep food down in the shark cage

I spent most of the rest of the trip laying down at the front of the boat just trying to keep my breakfast down – and failing to:-(  I did, however, go into the cage – as the marine biologists on board assured me that the nausea would be alleviated somewhat.

It didn’t really help, especially since the girl to my right was still puking right into the surf as we clung together to the metal bars of the cage.  There was definitely a few very memorable moments when the sharks swam straight towards our faces, but with the sea as rough as it was, it was very difficult to remain steady underwater while holding one’s breath at the same time.

I’m still glad that I did it, but it certainly wasn’t what I’d been expecting.