I visited Johannesburg for a couple of weeks in 2014, so this is not my first time in the “Rainbow Nation.” It is, however, my first time in Cape Town, which feels like a significantly different place. My memory might not be serving me to excellently, but Joburg felt to me like an African city with an unusual proportion of high-rise buildings, and very, very cold weather. (I visited in southern hemisphere winter.) By contrast, Cape Tows feels, in many ways, like colonialism. I know that’s a strong statement. (Maybe.) Allow me to explain, through my overview of the city and my first impressions.
Cape Town is a city carved out of mountains, and in many places, it is visually stunning. Seeing the city from balconies, or from the top of Table Mountain, might leave you breathless. (Another not-so-great thing that takes my breath away is the hilliness of the roads. Since I’ve been here, I feel like I’ve sat in cars that seem to be going uphill way more often than they’re going down. Because of the incline of the streets, I often experience a sudden lurch in my stomach that makes me feel like I’m about to die, when cars almost invariably jerk backwards before they go forward and upwards. Don’t even get me started on what it feels like when a car parks halfway up a hill and I have to get out of it.)
In Cape Town, colors are vibrant, views are excellent, and walking nearly everywhere is a massive workout for your lungs and quads. Modern architecture—like apartments, malls and offices—are mixed in with old, European-style architecture like campuses or historic buildings. These contrasts, I think, are most obvious in town. Like, town-town, where things in this city mostly happen. I suppose this is one of the things that makes me feel uncomfortable; it seems as if the city itself isn’t sure what era it wants to be in. When physically bombarded with the landscape, it is not hard to believe that this country has only been democratic for twenty-four years. (In every other circumstance, remembering that fact is like, “Whaaat?!”)
The contrasts don’t end there. I walk down visually stunning, sophisticated streets and boulevards, which I imagine only rich people could possibly live on… and these streets smell very powerfully like excrement. Rat carcasses are not an unusual sight either. In the most affluent parts of the city that I’ve been to, I feel like I see a homeless person or a beggar every two feet. The gorgeous city garden, where it astounds me that I can find such a large number and variety of plants in a single place, has a huge statue of Cecil John Rhodes right in the middle of it. Do you understand? It feels like colonialism.
Now that I temporarily live here, I can confidently say that Cape Town is not the place you should set as your destination if you’re someone trying to “experience Africa” for the first time. Or second time. Or third. A surprising number of Americans on the same study abroad program as I am, gave this as their reason for choosing to come here. Unsurprisingly, one of the most frequent complaints I’ve heard from them is, “There’s no African food!” I hear these things and laugh, but in a sense, it’s not that amusing. Cape Town is tailored for tourists. Only the cute, commodified parts of Africa exist here. (By “here,” I mean, of course, the places Cape Town wants tourists to see, not the townships or areas where large concentrations of Africans live.) I’m talking about gift-shop-type parts of Africa, like elephant earrings, or tote bags with Africa’s outline on it. Restaurants? They’ve got American, Italian, Thai, Chinese, Indian, Dutch—take your pick, tourist, to soothe your taste buds of wherever you lived before you came to Africa. African food? *in T’Challa’s voice* We don’t do that here.
I haven’t experienced many African cities, but if I had to be in a touristy place, I’d much rather have it looking like Osu’s Oxford Street than most of Cape Town.
On to lighter stuff.
A few random quirks I’ve noticed: the expression “this side,” which is probably going to find its way into my own vocabulary very soon. It means “here”; there’s hardly ever a literal “side” of anything that is being referred to. I used to be hella confused every time someone told me to “Come this side.” Now that I understand it means “Come here,” using the phrase often helps me appear to have assimilated, which in turn helps me avoid having the boring, repetitive conversation that starts with, “I can tell you’re not from here.” (My first week here, I swear I was just walking, and some South African bro approached me with those exact words on his lips. I refuse to accept that I simply walk like a non-South African. I’m going to assume it was my TwoCedi backpack that gave me away.)
Another quirk is the expression “just now,” sometimes “now-now.” As in Ghana, they don’t give any real indication of what time a thing is going to happen. If someone tells me they’re going to do something “just now,” I don’t even know how long I’ll be waiting.
A third quirk is also easy for me to understand because I know “chale.” Let me illustrate: “Hi / Catch you later / I agree / Thanks, bro / That’s a good idea / Yeah, I’m down for that” = “Aweh / Aweh / Aweh / Aweh / Aweh / Aweh” and so on. It’s really funny, and I also think it’s really cool. =)
Summary: My first impression of Cape Town is that it is strange, uncomfortable, and full of contradictions. It feels like a piece of the continent that went through something incredibly unique, even within the context of Africa’s “peculiar” history.