Cape Town is a town of dichotomies: beautiful yet run-down, chill but tense, modern yet steeped in history, rich but poor. It's a town that can challenge visitors but also enthrall them. I struggle to fully explain the sense of passion- for good and for bad- that pulses through this coastal city with stunning views and political undercurrents. It's a city you simply must visit.
(Note: I visited Cape Town in March 2015.)
In the floor above the thoroughly sobering Iziko Slave Lodge Museum, one is shocked into modern life with a curving wall made entirely of brightly colored CDs. There is a sense of escape in the form of music and the passing of time. Another super cool discovery were the many upcycled crafts; I was delighted by sculptures of safari animals made of old soda cans, plastic bottle caps, or old flip flops glued together (pictured). And finally, the National Gallery housed a host of collections and temporary exhibits that confronted fear, racism, classism, and sexism (I found it emotionally wrenching and compelling... but was ready for a drink afterward! I ended up taking a walk in the Company Gardens to take a breather).
Cape Town in three words:
colorful breathtaking striving
Views & sites
The Labia Theater
One of my favorite places in Cape Town is the unique and vintage movie theater, the Labia. Named after founder Princess Labia, the theater was converted from the former Italian embassy ballroom in 1949. The theater not only shows art, historical and recent films, but also has a coffee shop, snack bar, and full bar! And it's located across the street from the Company Gardens, so it's a perfect stop after a day touring around.
Handspring Puppet Company
I couldn't get tickets when I visited, but this puppet theater for adults gets rave reviews! The photos from their FB page are intriguing, as well. The theater features massive puppets (and works of art in their own right!) and story lines to appeal to adults rather than children. I would definitely try to get tickets, if they are still up and running.
There were some great restaurants in Cape Town, but they may have changed in the past two years. Here's a list of foods and drinks to try:
Top three recommended modes of transportation:
3. Go on foot. If you don't need a lot of sleep, I recommend staying near Bree and Long Streets. They have an active nightlife that go into the wee hours. Many of the tourist sites are within walking distance, and the path through the Company Gardens might be one of the most beautiful urban walk ways in the world. Be safe and don't walk alone at night, even in these areas; take a taxi or Uber instead.
2. Uber. If you decide to stay further out (an excellent way to cut costs), then Uber is a quick and easy way to get to destinations efficiently. I've traveled to many cities, and this is one of the best (besides San Francisco) because there are so many drivers available. Tip: if this is your first time using the service, download the phone app before you go.
1. City Sightseeing bus. I have used hop on/ hop off buses in various cities, and the City Sightseeing buses in Cape Town have been- by far- the most efficient. They stop at all the neighborhoods and tourist sites you'll want to check out, and they run regularly and on time. I got a 48 hour ticket and used it to travel all over the city for one price- a great deal in my opinion! They have three routes from which you can choose, one taking you around the city, another exploring the peninsula (including penguins and Kirstenbosch Nature Reserve), and another focusing on the historical downtown area. I took the red line and was pleased at how much I was able to explore!
There were a lot of places to shop around Cape Town, but Heartworks was simply charming. The owner travels all around South Africa, collecting arts and crafts to sell to tourists. You'll find colorful wire baskets, hand-stitched dolls and elaborately embroidered pillows, gorgeous necklaces and earrings dripping with beads, and so much more! I purchased items for my own home, but many more items for friends back home- and everyone loved what I gave them! There are three locations. Be sure to visit at least one!
Table Mountain Cafe
We happened to visit the infamous Table Mountain in the afternoon. We headed up in a cable car, though those with more time and lung capacity could certainly hike, and decided to sit at the cafe with a few adult beverages to enjoy the amazing view! It was a highlight of my trip to sit back, relax, chat with locals, and drink in the sunset. But be warned that the last cable car down is at 6pm! Highly recommended experience... and one I will certainly never forget.
Real world details
Poverty and racial inequality are real and in-your-face even for tourists in Cape Town (I hear that it is worse in Johannesburg, though I have not been... yet). Be prepared to have children and adults approach you, and even follow you, asking for food, money, physical assistance, etc. I was approached for money for taxis and shelter by several adults, and at one point had a sandwich snatched out of my hand by a rough looking little guy (I figured he needed it more than I did). When I went to a book shop that has great reviews, I discovered a locked metal door and was only allowed entry once a bookshop worker had come to look me over. While I browsed, I saw him refuse entry to several visitors- all of them black (maybe that was a coincidence, but...). Another time, I stopped for a coffee at a crowded outdoor cafe near the crowded Greenmarket stalls. Several young children approached me to ask for food, and an older couple reprimanded me when I ordered something for them, saying I was encouraging street kids to be lazy and annoying (I gave them the food anyway). Be prepared for uncomfortable encounters and decide beforehand how you'll respond if such things happen to you.
For solo travelers, you may experience the dichotomy of good and bad encounters. For the most part, I found that traveling on my own meant that people were extremely friendly! Many waiters and customers would sit and chat with me for long stretches, and several invited me along with them to other bars and public places. I found it easy to chat with people and felt comfortable dining on my own in restaurants or visiting tourist spots. I did, however, feel the need to be wary when traveling on foot in the evening, and I was careful to keep valuables locked away when walking through Company Gardens and on Long Street. Take the usual precautions and be aware of your surroundings, and you'll have a great time.
I was only in town for a few days, so I didn't get a chance to explore Boulders Beach (famous for penguins), the vineyard tours, Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, or Robbin Island. Check out these websites for more info on Cape Town:
Bottom line? Go! It has stunning views, delicious food and wine, and an intriguing mix of dichotomies. You won't regret it.
I lived and worked in southern China for a little less than a year. During the 2003-2004 school year, I wrote a lengthy blog post nearly every day. Posts were about funny incidents with staff or students, delicious or exotic foods I’d tried, new discoveries of self, encountering the otherness of a foreign culture, etc, etc. It was incredibly cathartic to write, but also a great way to stay connected with friends and family back home.
Fast forward twelve years, when I decided to start a new blog to chronicle my experiences in a new culture: Doha, Qatar. And yet, after three months, I was struggling to describe my every day life here. I think there are several reasons for this. The first reason is that technology has changed. At the time, my little blog in China would not be easily accessible to anyone, and I was fairly confident that none of my students or their parents would ever see my writings. It all felt incredibly anonymous. Also, there was no such thing as Facebook (or even Myspace for that matter!), so email was really my only way to connect with people back home. Now people can get (and perhaps prefer) brief clips of news from Doha in a Facebook post, rather than reading a lengthy blog post.
I find my second reason hard to explain to people who have never been to Doha. First, let me share some facts: this country has developed quickly in the past 30-40 years, partly due to the number of expats coming to work in almost every industry you could name. There are large percentages of Indian, Filipino, North African, and British or American expats, and taken together they significantly outnumber native Qatari citizens. What this looks like in reality: the expats have carved out lives that look somewhat like the ones they had “back home,” and the Qatari people keep to themselves in an attempt to hold on to their unique culture. My life here feels strangely like my life in the States, except for unexpected moments when I realize I live in a foreign culture (i.e., standing in line at Starbucks behind a man dressed in a thobe). I must behave as a guest who respects the country’s laws and customs but often times, and especially at my American school, it is easy to forget I am not in the US. I speak English all day, eat American foods in the cafeteria, and use American programs and curriculum for students.
This is not to say that I am unwilling to learn about Qatari culture; in fact, the opposite is true. I have gone to every event or cultural site I become aware of in an attempt to gain a better understanding: the Museum of Islamic Art, the Souq Waqif (the market), Fort Zubara, the Falcon Souq. I hear that you can attend events at the cultural center that I’d like to attend. Yet, I don’t know of any restaurants serving Qatari foods, I know very few Qatari people (and certainly not well), and it’s been difficult to find any books about the culture. In other words, living here doesn’t necessarily mean being immersed in the local culture.
So when you, my friends and family, ask about cultural experiences or even my typical day, I’m rather at a loss for the type of stories I used to share when I was in China. My typical day involves working at an American-style school (with admittedly a fascinating, diverse population of students and staff), going home to a spacious American-style apartment, grocery shopping for mostly American foods, and watching American TV, seeing American movies, or hanging out with my American (and some odd Canadian) friends. I can attend a Christian church freely. Most of the waiters and cleaners and taxi cab drivers are from other countries. Driving here is crazy, not because of Qatari laws, but because there are literally millions of drivers from all over the world driving the way they are used to from their old country. You must always be alert for some nutty person taking a right from the far left lane and such. Like I said, life here is not often coming into contact with the local culture, but a hybrid of many different cultures… sort of what is meant by “third culture” (See Third Culture Kids by Pollock and Van Reken).
One of the things I am grateful for is the overwhelming confrontation of my idealistic self with my selfish, privileged American self. Over and over, I have had to examine my motives and my biases, my desire to have things the way I am used to, the shocking realization that so many living around me are just struggling to survive. I find myself thankful for what I have, but also feeling guilty for the very same thing. Dynamics of wealth and power and privilege confront me daily, and I hope it will make me all the better for it… but I also don’t know exactly what that would look like. And I know that balance is necessary: I need to lighten up and have some fun every once in awhile, too.
When you ask me to describe Doha, all I can say to you is, “It’s complicated.” Feel free to ask more questions; I welcome the chance to better express what it was like to live in Doha!