Friday, December 18, 2009

Cape Town, South Africa

The travelogue continues...

Cape Town was one of our longest stretches in port, with 6 days and 5 nights to explore the city. The city is absolutely gorgeous; the plateaued Table Mountain looms over everything and the clouds drift over it in the morning like a tablecloth. We were docked at the V&A Waterfront (for Victoria and Albert), a touristy development with all sorts of restaurants, malls, curio shops, and stalls advertising helicopter tours, boat rides, shark diving, bungee jumping, and skydiving.

Day One:

Colin (my roommate) and I went exploring the waterfront in the morning, did some shopping, enjoyed some street music (there are a lot of bands on xylophones; I think it's called marimba), and had lunch plus free internet.

The afternoon was dominated by a visit to Khayelitsha Township. The townships were the places where blacks lived during apartheid. Khayelitsha was Cape Town's largest, with over two million residents. It's essentially a giant expanse of shacks packed tightly together, built out of aluminum plates and cargo containers. The city of Cape Town is building housing projects with the goal of eventually providing a legal brick house for every resident, but for now most live in the shacks with porta-potties for plumbing and electricity illegally run from huge octopus-like clusters of wires (they had to use a pole to hold the wires out of our way when the bus came through). It's a fully-functioning city, though; we passed tons of restaurants, barber shops, and even internet cafes, all run out of the same style of shack as the homes.

Our group stopped at a church and a nearby craft sale, where we were assured that we'd be buying directly from the women who made the things they were selling. We later visited two bed & breakfasts, each run by highly educated women who were looking to give tourists a safe and real glimpse into the townships. They were very interesting to talk to, and one served us biscuits and (non-alcoholic) homemade ginger beer.

I had hoped to catch another trip with Colin when I got back, but things were running on African time and so we were pretty late. As I went back to the ship I saw a friend leaving for a trip called Cape Town Jazz Safari; my earlier plans were spoiled, so I joined up with this trip on a whim. It ended up taking the crown as my Favorite S@S Experience So Far. We were a group of about a dozen students and a few professors, led by a guide who knew a lot about the musical history of the city. Evidently, Cape Town jazz is rather famous:

We went first to the house of Robbie Jansen. He's an aging jazz legend who went into cardiac arrest four years ago, nearly died, and now walks around with a tube running under his nose. He can still play the saxophone awesomely well, though. He took us into his living room and we were served some snacks, while Robbie and his friend on piano played us a few songs and talked a bit about their music and experience as musicians in South Africa. Their music gave me a brand new appreciation for jazz; it's really, really cool to hear live and up close.

Then our group split into two halves, and my half went on to the even cozier house of Hilton Schilder, a composer who plays the piano, guitar, and bow. The bow is a traditional African instrument; it's a solid hunting bow strung with piano wire. The player hits the string with a stick and holds the end of the bow in his mouth, changing the frequency of the resulting sound by changing the shape of his mouth. Hilton played us a few songs; it has a really cool, almost electronic sound. We were served an excellent dinner of rice, lentils, and chicken curry, and he played us a bit more on piano and guitar (which he played by plucking and tapping for different songs). He told us that he'd be playing again tomorrow at a jazz club in town, and we all resolved to come check it out.

Day Two:

I took an S@S trip to Cape Point, the "most southwesterly point of Africa", whatever that means. It's a pretty stunning view. We hiked up to the lighthouse and cliff lookouts and got a good eyeful. On the way back home our group stopped for lunch at a seafood restaurant. I had missed breakfast, and surprised myself by finishing an entire filet of fish. It was good! Our last stop was Boulders Beach, famous for its colony of African penguins. They were molting and looked really cranky but, as penguins, were still pretty darn cute.

I got back late (again), but was lucky to run into the ship's music professor as he was leaving the ship, so we shared a cab to the jazz club and I met with a bunch of other students there. We enjoyed some food and good music. After a few acts, Hilton and his band went on stage and he played the bow and piano. The bow didn't sound as good with accompaniment; it's too subtle a sound to be able to hold the foreground of the song. He played some songs that we'd heard him play solo the night before, which was pretty neat. He dressed and acted a lot more like a beatnik jazz dude than when he was entertaining us in his living room.

Day Three:

Colin and I met up with a friend named John whom we met in Cadiz to hike Table Mountain. We neglected to get a map before we began, and so our first trek up took us away from the actual mountain towards the nearby Devil's Peak, but we had all day so we were happy to get the extra hike in. Then, on our traverse back towards the main mountain we passed a trail called Platteklip Gorge, but we decided that it was probably not the quickest way up, so we kept going for a while longer until our trail petered out near the bottom of the mountain. We were later informed that, in fact, the gorge was the only way up. So, not willing to give up yet, we backtracked and went up the gorge trail. This part was *really* difficult after having hiked so much already, but we eventually reached the top.

A short, level stroll from the peak took us to the upper station of the cable car that runs up and down the mountain. We enjoyed some absolutely delicious cold drinks and a snack before buying a ticket on the cable car back to the bottom. On our taxi ride back to the ship we enjoyed some South African Christian radio.

Day Four:

Safari! We went to the Aquila Private Game Reserve; essentially, somebody had bought a bunch of farms, fenced them in, and brought in a bunch of animals. It was a full-day trip, but only about 2.5 hours of that was actual safari drive. Still, we got to see most of the cool animals on the reserve: elephants, hippos, rhinos, zebras, water buffalo, ostriches, and a bunch of different birds, as well as cheetahs, lions, and a leopard in separate enclosures. Oddly enough, I was most impressed with the springbok, a small type of gazelle, which also happens to be South Africa's national animal. They're sleek and pretty and have awesome horns. I bought a hat of the SA Springboks rugby team just because I liked the animal on their logo so much. Anyway, I have a ton of pictures and video to show people months from now; remind me!

Day Five:

I met with Terry Berkow, a business partner of a business partner of a guy named Philip McNeill that I know pretty well. He drove me around in his awesome convertible and showed me some of the neighborhoods and scenic outlooks of Cape Town. The really neat part of the morning was the conversation, though; I got all sorts of interesting perspectives on South Africa, as well as international business and branding strategy. Also, he took me to a fancy hamburger place, which makes him very cool in my book.

I met up with Colin back at the ship and went out on the town for some shopping, free-internet-hunting, and dinner. We also got tickets for a late-night showing of District 9, a recent sci-fi movie produced and set in South Africa. It has all sorts of allusions to apartheid and the famous eviction of blacks from District Six of Cape Town. It's a good movie, if a bit icky to watch. The slum in the movie was shot in an actual township outside of Johannesburg, and it looked very similar to Khayelitsha.

Day Six:

All of the day was allocated to a trip about apartheid, with visits scheduled for the District Six museum, Robben Island, and a few other stops. The morning museums were fairly interesting, though District 9 did more to make me care than any of the museum exhibits. Lunch was the most delicious meal I had in my entire Cape Town visit; it was served in a restaurant in one of the townships by a woman who talked on and on in a manner akin to a stand-up comedy routine. There was another marimba band, and at the end of the meal they brought me and a few other guys up, showed us some notes to play in a certain rhythm, and had us jam for a while. It sounded pretty darn good.

The afternoon's visit to Robben Island (the prison at which Nelson Mandela was kept) was, unfortunately, canceled due to strong winds; the ferry wasn't running. Apparently, that's a problem during this season. But that's one more thing for me to do when I return to Cape Town! I'd be more excited to come back here than any other port so far.

Next up: Mauritius. More news then!

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