A Summary of my Hawai’i Experience

My own country did a whole “Year of Return” thing, and did I choose to return? No. Where did I run away to instead? Hawai’i. The irony? I spent a lot of time comparing my tourist experience in Hawai’i to what I assume to be the tourist experience in Ghana. Spoiler alert: Hawai’i won out on almost everything.

The reason I was in Hawai’i at all is because I decided to crash a family vacation my aunt had planned for her nuclear family. My uncle couldn’t make the vacation dates and I calmly inserted myself in his place because when there’s an opportunity to take a vacation on someone else’s money, you bloody take it.

Me & my cousins. 🙂

My experience of Hawai’i was actually very limited. It was only about 5 days long, and we never left the island of O’ahu at all, barely even left Waikiki. I want to say that I could count the number of native Hawaiians I encountered in Honolulu without running out of fingers and although this is an exaggeration, it felt true. Maybe I felt a kind of relief because I couldn’t quite come up with any region or city in Ghana where a non-native tourist wouldn’t consistently encounter native Ghanaians. (This is the only place where Ghana won out over Hawai’i.) On the other hand, what made me the most uncomfortable during my trip was how, every time I encountered a native Hawaiian, they were serving me in some way.

But you know which demographic flocked in their hundreds? Japanese folks. As a matter of fact, it seems to me I experienced Honolulu in English, but with Japanese subtitles. This is both a figure of speech and quite literal. Almost everything was written in two languages: English and Japanese. I didn’t see text in the Hawaiian language even a quarter as much as I saw Japanese. Directory signboards, shop names, products sold, offerings on menus, available brands of tea, free brochures… It all reflected the primary tourist demographic.

I have a few hypotheses for how come Honolulu was full of Japanese people. One is the geographical proximity. There’s almost nothing but sea between Japan and the Hawaiian Islands, making it possibly a prime vacation destination. But my second hypothesis feels stronger: Hawai’i is bloody expensive, and those Japanese tourists were rich AF.

Walking along the streets of Waikiki was a designer experience. Walk out of the hotel and a Louis Vuitton store is staring you in the face. But right beside that LV store is a Gucci store, and right beside that, oh look, Balenciaga!

In many ways, Honolulu reminded me of Cape Town, in that both seemed to want to cater to tourists so much that the indigenous culture was smothered by the foreignness. It seems even harder to find Hawaiianness in Honolulu than it was to find South Africanness in Cape Town. But then again, I was only in O’ahu for 5 days, so who knows what’s out there?F6D119FD-D8E4-46DB-87A4-24551BFFC3E1

I don’t know about the rest of the Hawaiian state and its islands but affordable, Waikiki was definitely not. I got a couple of ice cream cones and I considered that a splurge. By the way, if you ever go to Hawai’i, I highly, highly recommend getting Kona flavored ice cream. I don’t know what makes Hawai’i’s Kona coffee different from any other types of coffee, I just know that the stuff was fire, and unexpectedly bomb in ice cream. Speaking of Hawaiian specialties, I don’t think I knew before I went there that they have a thing with pineapples. Once, the family was at breakfast, and my aunt ordered a fruity drink in mango flavor, and the waiter said something droll like, “You’re in Hawai’i, we don’t have mango. You’re getting it in pineapple.” I thought it was hilarious.


There’s nothing particularly Hawaiian about this breakfast, but it was nice. 🙂

I found out how expensive Hawai’i was the very night that I arrived. My aunt had planned for a shuttle to take me to the hotel. I got into the shuttle, the driver mentioned the name of my hotel and asked me to confirm, and I did. I was the last shuttle passenger to be dropped off. I can’t say my destination didn’t look a little shady to me in the first place. What kind of hotel did my auntie book? I wondered to myself. There wasn’t even a car park. It lowkey looked like some abandoned warehouse. The shuttle driver tried to give me instructions on how to get into the actual hotel from the dark and confusing outside, but the instructions itself were complicated.

I let my cousin know that I’d arrived, and she ran around the whole hotel ground floor looking for me and never found me, even though I was “right there.” She stubbed her toe quite badly in the process. (This stubbed toe was brought up many times throughout our Hawai’i stay. By her.) Long story short, we were at completely different hotels. They had the same name, except for one word. I was at the Hilton Village hotel, when I should have been at the Hilton Hawaiian Village. No kidding.

Shout-out to technology, because after wasting a lot of time trying to describe my position in the lobby to my poor cousin, some location-sharing features told me exactly what I needed to know. The shuttle driver was long gone by then, I was a tourist in an unfamiliar US colony-I-mean-state, and it was late at night. I had to Uber. The right hotel was a mile away from the wrong hotel. The Uber trip was sixteen dollars. For a trip that was less than ten minutes. SIXTEEN DOLLARS. So that’s that on that for prices in Waikiki.

My aunt took this photo of me… at the *right* hotel, the next day. 

Having already established the extraordinarily large Japanese presence, you might perhaps find it a little less ironic that one of the highlights of my Honolulu experience was lunch in a hibachi-style restaurant. It was my first ever teppanyaki meal, and before this, the closest I had ever come to having a meal that doubled as a performance event was at a sushi place in Accra. (Clearly, Japanese folks are killin’ it at the dining experience thing.) Picture a stand-up comedian who’s delivering his entire routine… but while frying rice, vegetables, meat and shrimp. That’s essentially what a teppanyaki chef is, and however much they get paid, I’m almost certain they don’t get paid enough. The food was good, but the experience was excellent. My personal favorite highlight was our chef’s onion volcano light show.


In O’ahu, there were beaches, but beaches are not quite that remarkable. There were shops, but shops are also not that remarkable. Some of the most fun I hE903BB65-F928-4906-8AAC-5B670C54ECA4ad just casually playing is when my cousin took advantage of happy hour to get us both drinks. I drank mine way too fast because I wanted to get wet and they wouldn’t let me bring alcohol near the sea or lagoon. So, I got quite astonishingly tipsy and frolicked with fish in a lagoon that I still don’t know whether it was natural or artificial. It was so much fun. By the time I got out of the water, I had to lie down for at least half an hour by the pool, because the whole world was spinning and standing up felt like falling down. Regrets? None.


I think the highlight of my experience was the most touristy thing we did, which was spend a day at the Polynesian Cultural Center. Although it’s located on the Hawaiian island of O’ahu, it’s a center that represents six main Pacific Island territories: Hawai’i, Tahiti, Aotearoa (or, New Zealand), Fiji, Tonga and Samoa. The Polynesian Cultural Center, in particular, is where I saw that Hawaiians have nailed this tourism business, got the science down to a T. Ghana could make a fortune if it organized itself even a quarter as well as Hawai’i is doing.

The Center itself is a fascinating maze of “islands” with a waterbody snaking through the middle of the property. Several events occur on repeated, regular schedules in different pockets of the Center, and once you have a map, it’s very easy to self-direct your own tour and participate in small 15-minute events for hours on end. For example, I attended a drumming lesson in “Fiji,” a marriage ceremony in “Tonga,” threw some spears in “Tahiti” and learned how to do a Tahitian dance called ’otea’a, attended what amounted to a cooking show in “Samoa,” a Haka performance in “Aotearoa,” and ironically can’t quite remember doing anything in “Hawai’i.”

Sometime near the middle of the day, all the individual island activities are paused so that everyone can participate in a grand event along the river. The experience of this was both beautiful and terrible.

Apologies for the grainy quality, but this is a screenshot from a video, since I took no photos. Haha.

The event is essentially a theater performance staged on canoes, whose storyline is the history of the Polynesian islands from its mythological beginnings—starting with the creation of the known human world by Maui, which you may recognize from Disney’s Moana—to the present. The beautiful part is that the performance, the narration, the props, the acting, singing, dancing, costumes, etc. are all so spectacular and entertaining! The terrible part comes as the content approaches the present. At this point, the narrators speak of how the Pacific Islands fell very nearly into deep destitution after colonization, and the only thing that saved them from that is exploiting the tourism industry. They put it in a really benign way that was supposed to make the audience feel great for contributing to the salvation of the islands or whatever, but to me it felt tragic. (I’m an Africana Studies major. With all the theory in my head, there’s no way hearing things like this won’t seem dead awful to me.)


One thing that I thought was also either very cool or tragic about the Polynesian Cultural Center is that about 80% of the staff at the Center—from the vendors to the performers to the activity facilitators—were undergrad students studying in Hawaiian universities. The beautiful part was how I got to interact with some Polynesians and Asians (a lot of Japanese students too, not just tourists, I discovered), while they made some money! The tragic part was when I considered that some of these students honestly might not be at all able to afford to go to school unless they got jobs at the Polynesian Cultural Center. From what I witnessed, working there is a high-energy, high-investment, high-maintenance affair. It surely can’t be at all easy to do this work while being a full-time student. So, with my limited knowledge of what my peers in Hawaii go through, I felt many different types of ways about their situations.

Did you know that Polynesians from Fiji are like… Black? Because I didn’t, until this day.

The engaging but exhausting day-long experience was capped off with a theater performance called “Ha! The Breath of Life,” which was another sort of dramatization representing all six of the previously mentioned territories, via allegory. But I must say, it was extremely easy to tune out of whatever was happening on stage… until the fire dancing! I wish I had videos or photos, but they were strictly prohibited. The fire performances were certainly an excellent way to end the night, though.

Anyway, a few random extra things: I discovered I really like saying the word “Aotearoa,” and that my favorite greeting from all six represented territories is the Aotearoa 0ne: “kia ora.” They both sound so musical and beautiful. Maybe I should move there and learn their Māori language, because e dey bee me waa.

My tourist tip for anyone going to Honolulu is this: if you want to experience Hawaii with Hawaiians, you should make it a point to talk to the people who are serving you and pay attention to what they say about what they do or where they go. The people driving you, taking your food orders, giving you tours etc., they all work in the tourist industry and return to their non-tourist worlds once they’re off the clock. I’ve observed from experience that some tend to be reluctant with giving recommendations because they think tourists always want the spectacular touristy things they don’t know about and that tourists wouldn’t be interested in the quotidian Hawaiian experiences that they’re familiar with. But once they see you’re genuinely interested, they’ll dish out the info. Persist!


SA Journal 4: The Foreignness Is Not Equal

This is something I complain about often: I knew who Hitler was, way before I knew what Hitler really did. It’s the power of heavily-circulated rhetoric. Even before you’re conscious of it, you’ve digested that if you have any sense in the world, you should hate him. I am still deeply disturbed that I didn’t know who King Leopold II was until the internet randomly educated me on him a few years ago. As I sit here in my room today, I detest Leopold several times more than I even care about Hitler, for what I think are obvious reasons. Not that I am trying to commit blasphemy or instigate some sort of Oppressor Olympics, but there’s a very important lesson in here.

I didn’t even know Zimbabwe’s colonial name was Rhodesia (and therefore had no clue who the hell Rhodes was) until I read Nervous Conditions in 2017. Twenty seventeen. I was nineteen years old when I found out. (If you knew the mission of the high school I went to and the variety of African classmates I went to school with, I think you would be a lot more ashamed for and with me.) Also, it was this very year that I read Trevor Noah’s Born A Crime (which is an 11/10 book, in my opinion), which presented Rhodes again, which is when I realized: yo. This guy colonized southern Africa, not just Zimbabwe. As you can see, I found out a lot of essential things at age nineteen. It amazes me how I was aware of the #FeesMustFall movement while it was happening, yet hadn’t ever heard a thing about the intertwined #DecolonizeUCT and #RhodesMustFall movements. If I’d known of at least the latter, maybe I’d have gotten wise a lot sooner than I did. Another lesson to be found here.

A year after finding out who Rhodes was, here I am in southern Africa again, with a lot more contextual knowledge of its history. Even though I haven’t been wise for very long, my first time in the Cape Town gardens with the group of majority-American study abroad students still stressed me all the way out because of the following incident: I expressed my incredulity about how a huge statue of Rhodes still stood right in the midst of the garden’s greenery, and insisted, quite vehemently, that it had to come down in the next few years. I was met, by several Americans, with a collective, “Huh? Who’s Rhodes?” reaction. When that happened, I wanted to sit down and cry.

It became even worse for me when my tour guide explained him to be “a really rich guy; owned a lot of property in Southern Africa; heavily involved in the diamond business—the DeBeers Company and so on…” I couldn’t help thinking that these were extremely kind and neutral words for a ruthless colonizer whose statue should have been demolished latest by 1995. Of course, such a mild summarization of Rhodes’ life and legacy produced reactions of, “Oh, okay, I see” reactions in everyone but me. Not “Oh my, what an evil man” reactions. I therefore considered the entire incident weird and inappropriate. It bothered me then, and it bothers me now. How many of these folks, I wondered, would leave South Africa with Rhodes’ name having already been half-forgotten and relegated to irrelevance in their minds?

What made it even worse than worse for me was how, a few minutes later, ignited by my comment about the statue having to come down, the conversation turned to the topic of all the decolonization attempts currently taking place particularly in American colleges; movements to remove statues and historical monuments related to racists or slavers, petitions to rename buildings that bear the names of notable bigots et cetera. I couldn’t help thinking, once again, “Okay, cool, but I don’t see how we were talking about Africa for thirty seconds, and now we’re going to spend the next half hour on America again.” I dissociated mentally from the conversation, not because the topic wasn’t relevant, but because of context and… everything else.


I think, sometimes, I get disproportionately annoyed at some things, at least in comparison to the gravity and scale of what’s actually annoying me. It stems from years of built-up frustration about how the foreignness between different people, histories and knowledge just isn’t equal. Back in high school, while studying human geography, I was surprised to find out that “Americanization” was considered a synonym for “globalization.” Now, I’m merely surprised at how surprised I was then. Cultural exchange, education, and the enlightenment they’re supposed to be able to produce just isn’t manifesting at equal rates in all directions. The history of the globe is a violent one full of intense power-plays, and it’s most obvious for me in these moments. But so is people’s individual obstinacy.

Here’s an example of something I think I overreacted to: I was eating at an Ethiopian restaurant a few weeks ago with some Americans who kept freaking out about how good the injera was, yet seeming to almost deliberately refuse to learn the word injera. They continuously exclaimed things like, “Yo, what is this bread thing?! It’s sooo good!” And I would repeatedly tell them it’s called injera, because it’s called injera and I would like it to be called injera in a very similar way that I would insist bofrot be referred to as bofrot and not “this doughnut thing.” My companions, that evening, would acknowledge that they’d heard me, and then, a second later, repeat, “Dude! This bread!” I would state it again. I would be acknowledged. A few minutes later, “Ugh, I don’t even understand why this bread thing is so good!” Then one or two would look at me sheepishly, half-heartedly asking, “What did you say it was called again?” And I wanted to sit down and cry. Effort matters. It speaks volumes about one’s disposition towards things other than oneself, when effort is absent.

Here is something I think I under-reacted to: Immediately after a UCT tour, a group of Americans were having a discussion in bleacher chairs behind me about how #DecolonizeUCT and #RhodesMustFall type movements weren’t really as important as people were making it seem, because yeah, sure, the past happened, but obviously none of would matter soon, now that we were in 2018, and people clearly aren’t as problematic now as they used to be. (I think it had flown over their heads that they were in a country that had only been democratic for a couple of years before they were born.) The entire conversation seemed to hinge on the false logic that people suddenly develop sense without anybody needing to protest, to fight inequality, fight for the right to be regarded as human, fight against systematic oppression. Because there’s definitely enough evidence in history of people magically developing sense with nobody’s help, right? *cue eye-roll*

The mad thing for me was how they were all agreeing with each other like, “Yeah, yeah, I totally know what you mean.” You’ve probably figured out by now that none of the people in the above conversation were Black. Listening to them, my hands were itching with the desire to backhand somebody one time. I settled for going on a rant to one of my new African-American friends who was sitting right beside me, about the shocking and complete disregard for context, the ignorance of their own ignorance, and their nonexistent knowledge of when to be quiet. Life is great.

Fun fact: about seventy percent of my Uber drivers in this city have been Zimbabwean. A significant percentage are Congolese as well, it seems. I’ve also been driven by a Burundian once. With these folks, almost as soon as I get into the car, they ask, “Akotowaa? I don’t know this kind of name. Where’s it from?” Ironically, it’s a different story with the South African drivers, who start chatting Xhosa or Zulu to me the moment I enter the car, and I have to be like, ei, paakyew, slow down for me, wai. It’s interesting for me that among Africans that I’ve been exposed to, there appears to be a heightened awareness to foreignness, and a consequent curiosity, when they are in countries other than their own. This relieves me.

One time, I was picked up by a Zimbabwean Uber driver who also immediately asked me where I’m from. I told him I came from Ghana, and he asked, “Where is that? Is it far from here?” That made me sad, but I proceeded to explain its geographical location to him. After he asked me to tell him more about life there, he said, “I’m from Zimbabwe. Have you ever heard of Zimbabwe?” And that made me even sadder. He seemed to consider it normal that a Ghanaian wouldn’t know of Zimbabwe. Another time, I was buying stationery from a shop at school, and as I was paying, the vendor saw my TwoCedi dashiki bag and asked me if I was East African. I denied and told her where I am from. And then I spent the next few minutes trying to answer all her questions about Ghana, a country about which she knew about as much as my Uber driver had. She apologized, at some point, for all her questions, because, “You know, over here, we just stick to ourselves and we don’t know anywhere else. Maybe a little Botswana, a little Zimbabwe, but the rest of Africa, we really don’t know anything about them. People like you are the only chance we get.” And I got sad. Just this past week, I experienced a similar thing with a vendor on campus, from whom I bought coffee. I had to open Instagram to show her pictures of Accra, because she was just insanely curious about this country she had zero knowledge of. It was kind of amusing, but you know, it also made me sad. The real tragedy, I think, is that every single one of these incidents would have disappointed me way more, had I not remembered that two years ago, I didn’t have a clue who Cecil John Rhodes was. The foreignness, mes amis, is not equal.

As a side note, something else that bothers me is that I’m an Africana Studies major who’s currently enjoying the opportunity to study Africana Studies-related things in an African country other than my own; yet it seems like everywhere I turn, I’m encountering non-students of this university (vendors etc.) who seem to want to know so much about parts of Africa other than SA. It just doesn’t sit right with me that people of a lower class than I am, are in the very same educational institution as I am, harbor the same curiosities about Africa as I do, but look at what I’m getting out of being here and what they’re not. Also, in my South African history class, there’s so much of the class’s content that nobody—neither South Africans nor foreigners—knew before being presented with the information through the course. So now, here I am, suspecting that I’m accumulating more random academic knowledge about South Africa than a good proportion of the South African population, and it’s just… an extremely weird feeling. =(

The foreignness is not equal, chale. At all.


SA Journal 3: Reflections on African Tourism

One of my professors here said, in the very first lecture—and I paraphrase only slightly—when white people landed on the shores of Africa, they did not see people. They saw resources, they saw nature, they saw land, all free for the taking. They chose not to recognize that real, legitimate human beings already inhabited this continent; if they had, history would have been a completely different story.


I thought about African tourism a lot, my first couple of weeks here, particularly within the South African context, and even more specifically, within the context of Cape Town. Naturally, a few touristy things have been part of my introductory experience to this city. But personally, speaking as an African from one of the most important countries on the continent when it comes to slave history and colonialism, I have been processing some of my experiences rather differently from many of my American counterparts who are also on this study abroad program.

In the first week, one of my RA’s led a walking tour through Cape Town city. For context, he is both South African and Black. I think he is a truly wonderful human being, and that he gave an effective and comprehensible summary of Cape Town’s history, as well as the explanations for some of the things we saw and places we passed through. I learned things like where festivals happen, where the Muslim population is concentrated, why South Africa has three capitals—random things like that. Since I was neither writing nor taking many pictures, a lot of it has flown out of my head through my ear. There are, however, a couple of things about his tone and diction at certain times that have lingered in my mind for a while.

A handful of times, he would say variations of the sentence, “It’s very, very difficult to talk about the history of Cape Town without talking about [race/colonialism/slavery].” These felt like apologetic disclaimers, which he gave in specific areas—like in front of the Iziko Slave Lodge or something—right before he would give us context about the place. Every time he said that, I wanted, but didn’t dare, to interject. I would have otherwise liked to tell him to speak the history as it is, without preamble, disclaimer, or apology, and especially not with repeated ones. I wanted to remind him that anybody else’s discomfort would not be his responsibility. Of course, I believe the reason the disclaimers even made an appearance is because the majority of this tour group was comprised of (white) Americans on the African continent for the first time. I can’t imagine that the statements could have been directed at anyone else. But, I mean, if we had all come to Cape Town to learn about the city, the country or the continent it’s in, then allow the learning to happen, even if (or, especially if) it would make most of us “tourists” highly uncomfortable. We should have been left to hold ourselves responsible for our own responses, without the need for him to mince words.

On at least three different occasions, he used the word “discovered” as he was speaking. Once upon a time, the Portuguese “discovered” the city, or the British “discovered” gold, or the Afrikaners “discovered” something or the other. For me, at least, it’s not like being presented with African history through this lens is a new experience; my colonized Ghanaian primary school education gave me enough of that to last me a lifetime, thank you very much—but all of us on the program were at least halfway through college. I would call us adults, if even very loosely. Surely, that calls for a far more critical mode of presentation than this?

I zoned out several times just reflecting on the semantics of “discovery.” I suppose, in a sense, according to the most literal definition of the word, it would be contextually accurate. However, that doesn’t automatically make it contextually appropriate. True, to discover is not to invent; it is to literally come into consciousness of something that is already there. But using the word does beg this question: To whom exactly was the newly “discovered” thing previously “covered”? Because if the answer isn’t “everyone,” we ought to think twice about centering the people it was previously covered to—as though the history of a place only began when They arrived. And so, we are back to the essence of this post’s first paragraph: when They came, were there or weren’t there already people here?

Touring an African city is great and all, but I would like to be presented information from the point of view of the not-colonizer, especially if the words are coming out of a native person’s mouth. Framework is important. Because, you see, whenever I hear “[European person/people] discovered…,” I translate it automatically to “[European person/people] saw a new opportunity to exploit/steal/colonize/manipulate…” Which is what I think tour guides should be saying. But I suppose the impartation of these words is usually a job guides are trying to get paid for, and employers might not think my proposed readjustment of the framework is very good for business.

This begs yet another question of centrality, given that African tourism is indeed a business. Which people are being centered as the users? Who exactly is the content (not the economic gains, although that too) of the tourism meant to serve? Because I suspect African tourism would look very different if it were being directed towards, for instance, other Africans. To an African, it is not necessary to explain what Africa is from scratch, babying your listeners; tourism might then be more like reading a paragraph aloud to someone than introducing them to an entirely new alphabet. So, I wondered, as I was listening to my RA speak, if or how his delivery might have changed if the tour group was made up of non-South African Africans, rather than majority-white Americans.


Also in my first week here, I went on a deeply disappointing peninsula tour, during which I spent most of the time sitting in a bus and listening to a bona fide Englishman drone on and on about Cape Town’s history. Yes, you read right: an Englishman. At first, I thought he might be an Afrikaner/white South African—which would have come with its own set of problems too—but then I know what an English accent sounds like. My suspicions were confirmed when he began passing comments such as: “Back in my part of the world…” or “When I first came to South Africa…” Ah, I just want someone to tell me how (I’m lying, o, I don’t want to know) an Englishman ends up being hired as a tour guide for, of all places in the world, a South African city?

As if his existence and presence weren’t problematic enough, during the tour, he said several, several things that made me stop and go, “Ah.” Most of his monologues were facts about Cape Town’s natural environment, or about the colonizers’ activities within Cape Town’s natural environment. We’re back to the first paragraph of this post again. When They came, were there people here or nah?! On the few occasions that native Capetonians came up, his comments would either be inherently inappropriate, or delivered in ridiculously insensitive ways.

“There was a shipwreck here,” he would say. “All the British sailors survived, and all the slaves perished.” And then he would continue like what he said hadn’t meant a thing.

“The Hottentots used to inhabit this area,” he would say, and I would think Oh thank God, we’re about to learn something about actual Africans. Then he would continue, “Unfortunately, they were exterminated.” That one really hit me in the chest. Is extermination a world you use for rodents, or is it a word you truly believe is an appropriate way to refer to the genocides your race committed? Trying to regulate my blood pressure can be a struggle as uphill as climbing Devil’s Peak. (Which I haven’t done yet, by the way. Eventually, chale.)



What, I think, bothers me the most about Cape Town tourism—and most attempts to sell or teach about Africa—is its willingness to center anything but Africans themselves. I know for a fact that there’s a lot to say about how Africans interacted with their own physical spaces, and that for no legitimate reason, these were things I was simply not being told. (The reason I know many things now is through the South African history class that I’m taking.) Passing by or through a Cape Town brewery, for instance, I expect to be told—in addition to how essential beer is to the Capetonian industry or whatever—about how local beer brewing culture was pioneered by African women in some of the tensest political periods of the nation. But, like, nah. My “tourism” of Cape Town hasn’t meant finding out about South African people, it’s meant going up Table Mountain, or learning about all the great Safari trips I could take—you know, if I actually had sika. I imagine, if I were someone other than myself, I might have been very comfortable with having spent a week in “Africa” and, upon going home, knowing that all I have to show for it are selfies of me with a baboon, me in a cable car, and my new knowledge of what a freakin’ dassie is.



The concept of tourism is itself very strange to me, primarily because it’s a business. African tourism makes me uncomfortable because it truly feels, sometimes, like voyeurism; European tourism makes me uncomfortable because it feels like paying colonizers money to be presented with the results of their massive exploitation of other people, which are being passed off as legitimate European accomplishments; American tourism makes me uncomfortable just because of globalization/Amercanization, and sheer capitalism. I’ve never experienced Asian tourism, but I know that at this point, I just sound like a dissenter who’s entirely unsatisfied with anything she comes across in life. So that’s great.

More journal entries forthcoming!


SA Journal 2: Overviews from a Mountaintop

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.)

Spider Kid on Table Mountain

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.

View from a balcony at the V&A Waterfront

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.

City garden on a stunningly clear day, with a view of Table Mountain

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.