Ahhhh, home. Well, sort of. We arrived in Capetown a few days ago, the end of our African adventure. Insofar as it is an international city, this is as close to home as we’re going to get. And we have been eating it up, literally. Sushi, Thai food, good (read: NOT instant) coffee. It’s all quite a treat for us.
Capetown is a refreshing change from the eastern parts of South Africa. People walk on the streets, even at night. Businesses and homes are not hidden behind fortresses of concrete walls topped with electrified barbed wire; you can tell in a glance whether something is commercial or residential. Hotel staff welcome you with a list of things to do rather than a list of no-go-zones.
The city reminds me of everywhere all at once. Long Street, where most of the backpackers places are, is Bourbon Street meets Greenwich Village. Restuarants and bars housed in buildings reminiscent of New Orleans’ French Quarter, with people and music oozing out of second floor balconies, rub shoulders with vintage and designer boutiques, used book stores and record shops, tattoo parlours, antique dealers, seedy bars and chic cocktail lounges. At least one person on every block is singing offerings under his breath, “Marijuana, mushrooms, acid.” I think I’ve been offered drugs more times in a few days on Long Street than I have in seven years of living in New York.
A few blocks away, the area around the parliament feels like central London. Go up the hill towards Table Mountain, take one quick turn around its side towards the Clifton neighborhood, and you are in Southern California, watching a steady stream Jaguars and Ferraris carving a line between the surf and gourmet restaurants. In the Bo Kaap district you are surrounded by the colorful buildings of La Boca in Buenos Aires (though the architecture lacks the same charm), but with a quietly devout Muslim population in place of vibrant Latin street life.
One of our first nights here we sat over mezzes at a Kurdish restaurant (my first ever experience with Kurdish food – it was quite good) discussing Capetown’s personality and agreed that despite its veneer of sophistication, there is no mistaking that you are still in Africa. The backpackers’ hostel where we stayed the first few nights, for example, occupies the top (6th) floor of a somewhat decrepit office building. The building’s directory reads something like this:
1st floor Department of Justice
2nd floor Oval College
3rd floor Herbalist Remedies
Mr. So-and-So, Imports/Exports
4th floor Beauty Supplies
5th floor Sleep-n-Go
6th floor Penthouse on Long Backpackers Lodge
It may be that I’m reading too much into things, but perhaps it is no coincidence that this country has an extremely high (and rising) crime rate and that the Department of Justice shares a run down office building with an herbalist and a Sleep-n-Go. Hopefully that was just an auxiliary office, and not the main branch.
Don’t get me wrong, Cape town is a world-class city, for sure. It has some of the most stunning scenery, best outdoor pursuits and adventure activities anywhere. Where else in the world can you dive with great white sharks, visit an outstanding vineyard, and attend a grunge rock festival all in the same day? But sometimes it feels like it’s trying just a little too hard. That said, Cape Town is the first place we’ve visited that I feel like I could live for an extended period of time.
(Don’t worry Mom, I’m not actually considering moving to Africa permanently.)