Monday, September 10, 2012

Quality Time with Strangers

Until tonight, I saw Cape Town mostly through a car window.  Even our wonderful free day yesterday (I still owe you details and photos!) was filled with driving from one place to another, glimpsing street scenes between stops at tourist destinations.
There’s not much to do alone safely in this city, according to everyone I’ve asked.  (And I’ve asked many, because I keep waiting for someone to say, “Yes, there’s this wonderful truly Cape Town experience where women can stroll the streets without fear or worry!”  No luck yet.)  My group is really wonderful but activities are limited by those dynamics – I accepted a long time ago that my travel goals are unlike most sane people’s ideal adventures.
I did get some quiet time to enjoy the Virginia and Albert Waterfront this evening, though, and made the most of every moment.  I found a discount bookstore (bliss, before I remembered that I have to carry whatever I bought all over Africa…now that will cramp my bookish style.), I avoided spending too much on silly tourist things, and  - best of all – I talked Cuban cigars and South African politics with the guys who work in the cigar and wine shop near my hotel.  Cape Town is the only province that votes for the opposition party in elections – they don’t subscribe to the African National Congress-loving outlook of many of their countrymen.  And I got a whole lot of informed, entertaining reasons why from these new friends: politicians are corrupt and disconnected from the people, Parliament doesn’t do anything to help South Africans in need and people who support the ANC are destructive.  “People are burning roadblocks and schools,” my friend Cynical Guy exclaimed.  “Who does that?!  We were kicked out of District 6 (more on that below) and yet we didn’t burn anything down.”
 
Just for you, Cuba friends!
 
Our conversation was cut short because it was closing time.  “Now I’ll need a glass of wine because you got me all worked up about politics,” complained Sarcastic Guy.  Given that he works in a wine shop, though, I don’t think I can take credit or blame for his forthcoming glass.
Part of the enjoyment of being alone in a foreign country is the ability to find havens.  I have them at home, too – places where I can go just to sit quietly and recharge when life gets hectic.  In Cape Town, my haven is Vovo Telo.  This is quite possibly the greatest coffee shop I’ve ever experienced.  There’s a big open kitchen actually inside the main room of the shop, where you can watch the hypnotic process of workers baking fresh bread and pastries while you sip your caffeinated beverage of choice.  Flour flies in transparent, glistening flakes against the uncovered glass windows, and dishes clang against each other as the baristas take their time making drinks.  Chalkboards are strategically placed to provide both information and a classy touch.  “I shouldn’t, but…” reads the one above the pastry-baking zone.  The shop is open from 7 am – 10 pm, and baking kicks into overdrive throughout the night.   The owners are working through government licensing to sell alcohol at night, as well – an expensive and lengthy process.  (The employee told me it’s 10,000 rand per month for an alcohol license – that’s about $1,250.) 
 
 
The employees don’t just share this information over morning coffee, of course, but I’ve become something of a regular at Vovo Telo today.  Both the girl behind the counter and one of the men in the bakery worked a double shift so they were there for both my morning and evening visits.  The morning visit was a fast stop for to-go breakfast I could eat on the bus, but tonight…tonight’ visit finds me slowly sipping my tea on the patio where I can play “I Spy” with basically every nationality on earth (apparently I’m not the only tourist who heard the Waterfront is the one place that’s safe at night!) and listening to a lovely but totally unAfrican musical mix of Michael Bublé and Norah Jones.
 
The music situation is the only thing that has enormously disappointed me about my trip so far.  I haven’t heard any African music!  Hotels and restaurants all play a rather terrible variety of American top hits (“Party on the Roof Tonight” welcomed us in the hotel lobby our first night here – never a welcome addition to the airwaves but especially awful when you’ve been traveling for 24 hours.)  When I ask where we should go eat where tourists don’t go and western music doesn’t play, every single person looks at me as if I’ve just burst into fluent Martian.  Our hotel concierge, ever eager to please because he’s a really delightful human being, finally suggested a place with African drums as entertainment.  Perfect!  What kind of food? I asked.  A 13-course meal.  Okay, so probably not the place South Africans go to grab dinner after work. 
 
My most notable “real” African experience with music happened accidentally last night when I was walking to dinner.  A group of street musicians was playing incredible music on xylophones, so I stopped to enjoy it.  Fortunately for me I was the only member of the audience – the musicians stopped to chat and then taught me to play the baritone xylophone part for “In the Jungle.”  I have neither musical nor dance talent but this summer I’ve learned you can fool people as long as you find something like the cha-cha or the xylophone that simply requires you to count.  It was a blast and I will forever be indebted to my friend Niya, who came to find the wayward wanderer (that would be me) in time to get my jam session on film. (Video coming soon.)
 
Now another really amazing day is wrapping up and I’m going to watch Argentina and New Zealand play rugby on TV before I go to sleep.  I’ll share the details as soon as I get time to process and write about them…today involved five truly outstanding meetings in a matter of eight hours, each more amazing than the last.  My brain is working to capture every detail, every drop of knowledge we receive because each briefing or introduction adds more information that helps me further understand what we learn at the next meeting.  I still can’t quite believe I’m here.
Putting the members-only library at the South African Parliament to use
 
***
 
District 6 is not, as it sounds, something out of The Hunger Games.  It’s far more real and therefore far more awful.  District 6 was a crowded area of Cape Town that was the most mixed race area of town, not far from Parliament.  Its diversity was not seen as a positive thing by apartheid-era leaders, who kicked 60,000 people out of their homes even though the space was all private property.  Residents were moved to shacks  in a run down, horrible part of town and their homes were bulldozed – the only buildings left standing in District 6 were churches.
The residents have undergone years of lawsuits in an effort to get back what they lost.  They’re slowly succeeding but in the meantime have largely relied on government housing in other parts of town.

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